Category: Passion


Making Your Brand Irreplaceable

Finding that special ingredient that makes your brand irreplaceable is tough work. If you don’t put yourself in the shoes of your customer, that job turns from tough to impossible.

Job #1 is to turn your brand inside out, understanding that one simple answer that every customer seeks:

What’s in it for me?

Think of your own life. Which brands are such an important part of who you are that there are no brand substitutes?

As I went through this exercise myself, I immediately thought of the 2012 Excedrin recall. That devastating recall in which every single bottle was removed from every single shelf in every single state. Excedrin is my standby. It is the medication I turn to when migraines put my head in a vise and won’t let go. For me, there is just no substitute. I frantically searched through purses, suitcases and drawers stockpiling Excedrin so I could manage to cobble together a cure until that jubilant day when the brand magically reappeared on shelves.

I thought about the other brands in my life that are irreplaceable.

So, here is the $6 million question:

What emotional benefit does your brand promise its customers?


7 Life Lessons Learned While Fishing in Alaska

A great deal of research has been conducted in the past few decades on the restorative powers of nature. It has been demonstrated that nature can make us more productive, help us focus, prevent depression and reduce stress.  So, I shouldn’t be terribly surprised that my 10-day fishing trip in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska resulted in such an epiphany of sorts. Not only did I have the adventure of my life, but I achieved mental clarity on so many things that had been on my mind. Perhaps you can take this trip with me vicariously and benefit from some of the powerful lessons I learned.

1. Embrace Risk

Seaplane Condensed

Of the four of us who traveled to Alaska, I was the most inexperienced fisherman … by far. Well, let’s be honest, I had only fished once in my life and that was 30 years ago. I’m not going to lie – I was a bit nervous. Could I fish side-by-side with these more experienced individuals without making a fool of myself? Would I get seasick as we darted along the ocean waves? Would the seaplane be safe? Would I have the wherewithal to pop out of bed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our 3am wake-up calls? While those questions may have made me a bit hesitant, they certainly didn’t stop me from going on this adventure. Truthfully, the inherent risk was a little bit intoxicating. So, I found myself tugging on chest high waders, climbing on sea planes, wading into rivers and sailing over the choppy Pacific waters with a sense of gusto. Everything I was experiencing was so raw and new. The air felt crisper. Nature was more vibrant. People were more interesting. I saw colorful jelly fish floating in the ocean, a bear sticking its paw in the river, salmon swimming against the strong current, glaciers lining the landscape as far as the eye could see and so much spectacular beauty that I felt small in comparison. As the above articles so eloquently illustrated, my mind was refreshed and energized … and so was my spirit.

2. Trust Your Guides

Dick - condense

I had the fortune of traveling with some very knowledgeable and patient guides. They knew where to go to find the fish and where to avoid stumbling on less-than-friendly grizzlies. They knew when to move up our fly-out time to capitalize on the fish population and when to cut the trip short because we were just wasting our time. They knew how to encourage, instruct, demonstrate and cajole. They taught me how to cast, set the hook and let the salmon think they were winning the battle. I learned to listen and trust the lessons they imparted.

3. Collect Experiences, Not Possessions

Ocean condensed

In preparation for this adventure, I found myself in the business of buying lots of things. Clothing: a wind-resistant jacket, a rain suit and breathable shirts. Fishing: chest high waders, wool socks and an Alaskan fishing license. Travel: hotel, fishing lodge, flight, car and excursions. Accessories: a water bottle that wouldn’t leak and a waterproof camera case. Collecting things for the trip was an adventure unto itself. It involved two trips to Cabela’s, a trip to Gander Mountain and numerous dinners and nights out with our best friends to plan the details of the trip. It was part of the overall experience and it was fun, helping to build our anticipation for the trip that lie ahead. But all that paled in comparison to the experiences we collected in Alaska. Adventures like this fuel stories for years to come. Honestly, the stories had begun before the first day was complete. We talked among ourselves, shared fish stories with others at the lodge, posted on social media and sent texts to our families. The storytelling had begun.

4. Be Prepared to Fall

Bird condensed

While I generally understood the mechanics of casting, my casts were falling short. Short enough that I wasn’t going to catch any fish unless I figured out how to improve my technique. One of our guides told me to ‘put a little more oomph’ into my casts. So, I decided to take a giant step off the sandbar into the water so I could put my whole body into it. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, my left foot found the one and only drop-off so close to shore. Within a matter of a few short seconds, I went from casting to swimming. Once I realized I wasn’t in danger, I have to admit I felt a bit like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality after falling in the Miss United States pageant.

“I mean, I know we all secretly hope the other one will trip and fall on her face, and – wait a minute, I’ve already done that!”

A little known fact about me is that I am not the most graceful creature on the planet. I have had a few face plants in my day. So, truth be known, I had a sneaking suspicion that I would be taking a swim at some point during our 10 days exploring the Last Frontier. So, in a way, getting it over with was a bit of a relief. Sometimes planning for the inevitable – or the not-so-inevitable – takes the pressure off and makes a tough thing not so tough.

5. Believe in Yourself

Sue condensed

You already know I’m a novice, so perhaps you won’t be surprised that I had two unsuccessful days on the river. When I say unsuccessful, I mean wildly unsuccessful … not one single fish caught. I had an internal battle with myself on the second day that went something like this:

It’s okay. Really. Look at how beautiful this place is. Soak it all in. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t catching any fish. Just keep practicing. It will pay off eventually; if not today, tomorrow.

This mostly worked, although I had an emotional dip for a few hours. But, then I realized, I am in Alaska and not on some comfy cruise boat, but I’m actually in the wilds of Alaska! How many people have the courage or the resources to make something like this a reality? So, I turned my attention to the ripples in the water, the way the sun reflected through the trees, the snow-topped glaciers in all their splendor and – yes – to the salmon my husband and friends were pulling in. I savored every last minute on the river and figured the next day would be a fresh start. And I was right. As time went on, I figured out how to cast and set the hook without overthinking it. The next time we traveled to the Kenai River, I caught the largest silver salmon on our boat and actually had to throw fish back so I wouldn’t go over my daily limit. Keeping a positive attitude and not giving up paid off.

6. A Kind Word Goes A Long Way

Sunlight condensed

We spent a week at the Gone Fishin Lodge filled to capacity with die-hard fishermen. Now, one might think that these river-hardened gentlemen might be uncomfortable around the likes of inexperienced women attempting to fish the wilds of Alaska, but it is amazing what a smile and a kind word can do … even at 3:30 in the morning. A bright, ‘Good Morning!’ followed by, ‘How was your fishing yesterday?’ brought smiles to everyone’s faces. While we came from all over the United States, we quickly formed a bond. We shared stories (it turned out I wasn’t the only one that went swimming!), talked about our families back home and discussed tasty ways to prepare salmon and halibut. We went on daily adventures with some of our new friends, crossed paths at local restaurants and sat on the deck in the evenings sharing a few drinks after a long day of successful fishing. We truly enjoyed each others company.

7. Respect Nature

Bear Condensed (2)

I had an overwhelming desire to see a bear while in the Alaskan wilds. I saw them as the cute, cuddly, sweet-faced bears I gazed upon at my local zoo. The guides had warned us that we were in bear territory and that we were guests in their land. We needed to respect them and their sense of territoriality. While I took heed, I still wanted to see a bear. And then it happened. We were fishing from a sandbar when he appeared across the river. … just a little more distance than a cast away. He paced back and forth, obviously hungry and on the lookout for dinner. He must have liked what he saw in the river because he toyed with the idea of fishing. As he took a few tentative steps into the river, our guide hurriedly put all the salmon we had caught into an air-tight container, while coaching us to get ready to jump into the boat for a quick getaway. That was when the adorable grizzly turned into a menacing predator. Lucky for us, he stayed on the other side of the river, but it taught me a valuable lesson.

Mountains Trees Condensed


Sometimes You Just Need to Nurture Your Creativity

These days, there seems to be an insatiable desire to link everything we do on social media back to ROI, a statistic or something else that helps move your business forward in a dollars-and-cents kind of way.

  • How many new prospects did you generate on Twitter?
  • Did your LinkedIn article show how knowledgeable you are?
  • Did your Facebook post make people want to work for you?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I agree that there has to be a purpose for it all at the end of the day. Why spend countless hours and brain cells working on something if it doesn’t elevate your business in a quantifiable way?

But lately, I can’t help but wonder if we are missing some of the really important ‘soft’ benefits of engaging in social media.

Like creativity, for example.

Concepts - Creativity

Posting to your social media account can allow you to flex your creative muscle and to solve some of those business problems that have been nagging you for days.

Branding Breakthroughs may be dedicated to advancing our client’s understanding of branding, but let’s be real … creativity is a critically important component of crafting an insightful and inspiring brand strategy.

For us, outlets like Tumblr and Instagram provide the opportunity to go beyond the day-to-day business workings (which can get tedious at times) and express ourselves in a way that brings new clarity and vision to the work at hand.

If you read any of the many articles written on breaking through creative blocks – like this one at Creative Bloq or this one at Fast Company – you see some common threads. Take a stroll around the neighborhood. Snap some photos. Draw a picture. Write aimlessly. Commune with nature. It is through these creative outlets that our brains are allowed to free float and to, sometimes miraculously, come up with a solution to a problem that has stumped us.

Perhaps Jill Davis is on to something when she says, “The waves of the sea help me get back to me.”

The waves of the sea help me get back to me

So, don’t be afraid to use a social media channel like Tumblr, Instagram or Pinterest to feed your intellectual curiosity and to nurture your creativity.

It may pay off for you in unexpectedly wonderful ways.

To see how Branding Breakthroughs nurtures their creativity, check out our Tumbler, Instagram and Pinterest accounts. You will notice each still pays off our brand by delivering consistent imagery in a voice that is in total alignment with who we are.



Little Golden Books Illustrate Why Visual Storytelling Is So Powerful

I want you to go back in time to your childhood days and remember one of your favorite books.

Got it?

Now put yourself back into the body of that five year old and snuggle in to listen to your favorite story.

You may recall being tucked in bed with mom or dad perched next to you, sitting on grandma’s cozy lap which was just right for your little body or curling up on the floor next to classmates as your kindergarten teacher picked up that book. As each read to you, they held the book up, showing you all the colorful and wonderfully imaginative pictures. Some may have brought the story to life even more with animated facial expressions and voices that imitated the characters they were reading.

Now I want you to envision that story being read to you once again … but this time I want you to imagine listening to the story with your eyes closed.

The story loses a bit of its punch, doesn’t it?

Why? Because the visuals – both from the book and from the person reading – were such an integral part of the storytelling process.

Perhaps without those pictures. you wouldn’t have been able to envision just how saggy the Saggy Baggy Elephant was.


Or how adorably cute The Poky Little Puppy was … even if he did get in a lot of trouble.


It is the visuals that truly animate the story, bringing it to life in a way that many of us could not do on our own. Without visuals, each of these stories may have faded from our memories over time. The creative pictures and illustrations that Little Golden Books provided to so many of us as children help us better understand why visual storytelling is so effective, particularly when inundated by a virtual sea of communications.

Research has shown that 65% of individuals are visual thinkers and the mind processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text (GT Ignite). We bring moments back to life much more rapidly through the images we collect and store in our brains.

So, is it really that surprising that visual mediums are the fastest growing of all social media channels? The following chart from Tech Crunch identifies the top three fastest growing social media platforms as Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram.  You can’t read a post lately without some mention of the power of visuals. Twitter is rife with posts on how visuals increase engagement with your tweets and LinkedIn recently launched a publishing platform that includes an image as an integral part of the post.


So, in this day of storytelling, remember that visuals can help bring your brand to life far more effectively than words alone.


Check out Branding Breakthroughs visual content on our social channels.

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How To Tap Into Consumer Emotions In Qualitative

“The buyer journey is nothing more than a series of questions that must be answered.”  Dr. Michael Bernstein, Stanford University

Dr. Bernstein could not be more accurate – the quality of information obtained in qualitative research is only as good as the dialogue that occurs between the moderator and the people in the room.

So what questions should be asked to truly understand a consumer and the journey they take when making a purchase decision?

We all know that if you ask a consumer a direct question, you typically get the first answer that pops into their mind … and often that answer is very rational.

Moderator: What’s most important to you when buying a new car?
Consumer:  Price is always #1.

If we believed that price was the single most important criterion when purchasing a car, we might surmise that this consumer would buy a nissan versa or a Chevy Spark because they are two of the cheapest new cars on the market today. But, of course, we know there are many other factors that weigh into their buying decision. We also know that most people will not buy a car they happen to think is ugly.

When faced with a direct question, consumers often respond quickly and habitually. Quite often, they are not even aware they are providing a faulty answer.

So, how do we tap into the deeply held emotional triggers that consumers often do not even realize have a profound effect on their buying decisions?

The answer is to ask for their opinion over and over and over again, but instead of asking direct questions, to use associative and projective techniques to evoke visceral and emotional reactions. These types of responses occur so spontaneously that consumers do not have time to filter them through the logical side of their brain.

Let me share a few favorite techniques with you.

Associative Techniques

Unaided Association

Why? This is a wonderful place to start because it allows consumers to clear their mind of everything they immediately associate with the brand.

How? Ask the question: What are all the thoughts and images that immediately come to mind when I say X? Anything else?

Picture Sort

Why? Many assume that people prefer to communicate through language, but in fact 65% are visual thinkers. (Prime/Neil Fleming)

How? Create a library of royalty-free images that reflect different people, emotions, situations, objects, etc. Print these images on card stock or photo paper. For each project, pick a sample of 20-30 images to show to consumers, asking them to spontaneously select those that most fit the brand being discussed.

Pictures - Web_Small

Word Sort

Why? While most individuals are visual learners, a number still process best by reading. This is where words come into play.

How? Create a comprehensive list of words that describe people and their emotions. Print each word on card stock. Select 20-30 words for each project and follow the same guidelines described in the Picture Sort.

Adjectives - Cropped

Color Sort

What? Each color has a unique meaning and each evokes different emotional responses.

How? Create color cards in a similar format to the images created for the Picture Sort. The colors of the rainbow are a great starting point. Additional colors to consider are white, black, grey and brown. This can either be done as a group exercise or a stack of color cards can be given to each individual. This YouTube video illustrates how colors were used in research to explore emotional reactions to the Apple watch.

Colors - Web_Small

Projective Techniques

Brand Personification

Why? This is an excellent technique to humanize your brand and to better understand its personality and voice.

How? Challenge consumers to think of your brand as a person and ask them a number of questions about that person. Is it a man or woman? What kind of car do they drive? Do they live in the city, suburb or country? What kind of music do they listen to? If you met them at a party, what would they be like?

A Trip to Corporate Headquarters

Why? This is a very simple way to understand how consumers perceive the company behind the brand.

How? Ask consumers to take a virtual trip with you in their mind to the corporate headquarters of Brand X. As you are going on this journey, ask them questions. What kind of cars are in the parking lot? What does the building look like? Can they walk right in the door or is there a security guard? Once inside, how are people dressed? Do they welcome you as you enter, ignore you or ask you what you are doing there? Can you get in to see the president unannounced?

Obituary Exercise

Why? This exercise can often provide the Achilles Heal for your brand or a competitor’s brand. It is also a great way to hear from some of your quieter group members.

How? Each individual is asked to write an obituary for your brand or a competitive brand. In this obituary, they are asked to include the following: cause of death, who came to the funeral, what was said in the eulogy and who will most miss the brand. Obituaries can be read out loud or read privately after the groups.

About the Author


Sue Northey offers a wealth of strategic brand and communications moderating experience acquired through a robust career spanning a multi-billion dollar packaged goods company, national advertising agency and public relations & social media firm. Her expertise centers on creating intuitive target profiles, compelling brand positionings, single-minded messages and meaningful communications strategies that connect with customers and drive business revenues. Her career has spanned the client, agency and academic sides of branding and communications and she has had the pleasure of working on an extensive portfolio of consumer, business-to-business and nonprofit brands.

If you are interested in obtaining a moderator bid, please initiate a Request for Proposal on the Quirks website or email Sue directly at


The Passion Play: What Is Your Brand’s Kryptonite?

Do you have any passion brands in your life?

By passion brands, I mean those brands you cannot imagine living without. Brands that would leave you brokenhearted if they were to disappear tomorrow.

As I think of this question in my own life, I can only think of three: 1) Excedrin Migraine (absolutely nothing works as well on a killer headache); 2) iPhone (my life is tethered to so many apps that I would have a hard time functioning without it); 3) Long Tall Sally (they offer fashionable clothing that actually fits my long limbs). When you think of the hundreds of brands I interface with every week, it’s hard to believe that only three have achieved this status in my life. But, I bet you don’t have a whole lot more in your quiver either.

Why is that?

As a marketer, your driving goal should be to catapult your brand to passion status for as many of the individuals in your target market as humanly possible. An irreplaceable brand creates a shortcut to consumer decision-making. This is a real advantage to time-starved consumers. It also means there is no wiggle room for another brand to sneak into your target’s hearts and minds. That’s an advantage to your bottom line.

But, while becoming a passion brand is an aspirational goal for all marketers, it is far easier to wax poetic about its benefits than it is to accomplish. So, just how do you go about making your brand a passion brand?

I am sorry to burst your bubble. There is no secret black box or magical crystal ball that can circumvent knowledge, investment and hard work. Your brand must intercept the target at numerous points along the decision process, earning their attention, teaching them what makes you special, encouraging them to consider you and ultimately buy you and then creating such an incredible brand experience that they must tell others about you. That is the magic behind The Passion Play.


First, of course, is to get people to notice you … to become aware you even exist. As you well know, the old adage of “if you build it, they will come” never really works nor does tweeting a few posts or announcing a new product on your website. The most important way to get noticed is to figure out who your bull’s eye target is, where they live, work and play, what matters to them most and what emotional benefits they are seeking from your brand. Only then, can you connect with them in a meaningful way.

Once you are noticed, you have to help your target grasp who you are at your very core. They need to develop a crystal clear appreciation for your point of differentiation versus your competitors. This phase answers the question: What is my kryptonite … my secret substance that no one else has? Despite some not-so-complimentary opinion pieces on how flawed qualitative and quantitative research is, designed properly there is no substitute for getting close to your target and understanding what makes them tick.

Once you have earned your target’s attention and demonstrated your value as a brand, the end-game is to entice them to consider purchasing you. Consideration is a precursor to trial. Now, you may think coupons are the answer because you consistently hear women in focus groups say, “If you give me a coupon, I’ll try it.” But recent research shows that coupons generally reward current users of your brand. According to Hub Magazine, “Traditional promotions work well to reward current users for their loyalty, rather than to drive consideration or trial.” So, what about sampling? Well, sampling is great if you have a demonstrably superior product and a fat marketing budget, but for many brands, sampling is just not feasible. Viral marketing? Despite what many marketing companies may promise, there are no guarantees that a cool new product or a catchy little video will go viral or that Public Relations will place that awesome story on the cover of Fortune magazine. So, here is the cold, hard truth:

“You must know who you are,

what differentiates you from competitors

and who you are targeting

in order to develop a simple, powerful message

that inspires your target to take action.”

If you are available where your target usually shops and you are offered at a price they consider a good value, they will finally commit to trying you. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. This is where the value proposition needs to deliver against customer expectations. If the product underdelivers, you will not earn the privilege of repeat purchases. If the product overdelivers, it is not achieving its full market potential. The optimal scenario is to perfectly match the performance of the product with your target’s expectations. Only then, will you achieve maximum trial and repeat.

In decades gone by, a marketer’s panacea was to achieve brand loyalty, but today the goal is to inspire your target to become a champion for your brand. To create a customer that is so passionate about your brand they must share their brand experience with others. They may do this more publicly, through Twitter, Facebook or their blog, or in the shadows where interactions are not as easily tracked, in face-to-face conversations, texts or emails. These are the most passionate of the passionate, the individuals you can invite to participate in your brand.

Making the progression from awareness to brand champion can be a lengthy and expensive process, made only more arduous if you do not have a sense of the essence of your brand and a clearly defined profile of your bull’s eye target. So, start this journey by doing your homework. Just like in the classroom, if you don’t do the work, your chances of making the grade are slim.