Ep. 37 – Behavior-Based Brand Building

JAN 1, 2021

If you don’t know the behavior driving velocities off the shelf, you can’t really optimize marketing, promotions, channel strategy, or much of your 4P playbook.

The consumer is not simply an advertising foil or the concern of your marketing agencies. That’s what fixed mindset sales consultants and brokers want you to believe, that you’re in a 3P business, that the consumer either magically comes to the product or not.

As I write in Ramping Your Brand, most of your revenue as a CPG brand, especially as an early-stage one, comes from a minority of your consumers.

These are your frequently repeating customers, anywhere from weekly to monthly. They aren’t necessarily a completely unified tribe, but often you can find occupational or lifestyle groups that wildly over-index as fans…for explainable reasons.

These reasons boil down to values-driven behavioral impulses that make your brand appealing to routine use…or not…


Values that drive CPG brand selection and habituation are mostly subconscious. Things like gender socialization, class orientation, deep-seated, culturally inculcated anxieties around weight, nutrition, etc.


They are not what we tweet-fight about online. Social media posturing relies on ideologies, consciously held moral and spiritual ideals that are very hard to enact, hence the need to constantly exhort every one to do them all the time. Think church. Ideologies decay quickly into hypocrisy and corruption. Then we’re left with the actual, unconscious values that no one is really discussing. Or, by inversion, they’re discussing the aspirational opposite of what our deep-seated values really are.


Whether you like it or not, your brand will live on a continuum from lofty aspiration to totally subconscious, normative values. Your symbolism will largely govern where you sit. But your marketing can nudge you around as well.


Aspiration is a hazardous place to anchor your brand in, especially if the loftiness of them is stratospheric.


Why? Many of us pretend to have aspirations we don’t actually act consistently on. In some cases, we are so deluding ourselves that we will never even attempt to fulfill said aspiration. Think gender equality in the workplace. We’re fighting about gender equality precisely because what is subconsciously driving work culture currently is male dominance, not gender equality.

Look, America is one of the most fantasy-ridden societies on Earth. We consume more media per capita than anywhere else on Earth as well. We spread more conspiracy theories per capita than anywhere else either.

It is a byproduct of a hyper-individualistic culture ideal for selling innovation that undercuts tradition, established habits, established brands, etc.

Knowing which values consumers are more likely to act on in your category helps you understand the values to tap into product design and marketing. And it allows you to ignore the ideological aspirations that only drive the behavior of very tiny niches consistently. Regenerative agriculture is a great example of a noble ideal that consumers will never seriously act on during the weekly purchasing of hundreds of CPG categories. No certification label will make it any easier.

The second major reason you need smart, behavior-based brand building is the oversupplied nature of today’s CPG marketplace. So every major service or product already exists. I’m not suggesting all consumers are satisfied with them, but most consumers are delighted with most offerings in most categories.

The businesses that are growing are tapping into latent, often suppressed, dissatisfaction among a small subpopulation. If that dissatisfaction is communicable or infectious, to speak, it can spread to others more broadly.

The point I’m making is everyone is NOT your customer. Ever. But you can and should be able to find a scalable audience anyway. It just doesn’t take that many individuals to scale a premium-priced CPG business.

You want to find sources of dissatisfaction and reach those geographies and subpopulations most likely to have people ticked off about them. Just think big when you do. Founders who chase current sources of consumer dissatisfaction generally wind up with something that scales faster.

An after-dinner munchie that isn’t full of calories? SkinnyPop. Helping you do righteous battle with your innermost lusts for sugary carbs…


However, the dissatisfaction you intend to alleviate can’t be the consumer equivalent of a Ph.D.’s dissatisfaction with a hip shooting journalistic cover story. Not that geeky or elitist.

You can even anticipate future dissatisfaction with your innovation, as long as emerging values show signs of impacting this or that category. This is what Siggi’s did inadvertently in 2006, long before reducing sugar in food was a mainstream cultural value.

Do enough homework upfront to have a good behavioral hypothesis about a recurring, daily, dissatisfaction people have that on deep-seated values being thwarted. Swoop in to alleviate the dissatisfaction and make decent gross profits in doing so.

The danger here is that you geek out too much and take us all down some elitist, inscrutable rabbit hole like biodynamic agriculture, in which tangible certifications quickly blur into spiritual rambling and nitpicking with no tangible benefit to the consumer…while they’re consuming your product.

I still don’t know why even regenerative agriculture could ever motivate consumers to habituate to a new brand since no one but a very tiny ideological elite wakes up pissed off about the state of American agriculture. This dissatisfaction is best addressed at the regulatory level, not at the level of brand-building.

Most brands with environmental missions built on supply-chain narratives risk asking the consumer to care a lot about enacting their aspiration for a cleaner environment through very small-stakes decisions whose impact on the environment is statistically meaningless. Again, government regulation is much, much more effective more quickly. When the outcome is too distant from the consumer’s ordinary life, the values at hand are too aspirational, too weak. For example, household recycling peaked several years ago despite the increased spread of pro-environment aspirations.

As I write in my book, the outcomes that drive habituation to modern, new brands aren’t sexy. They’re already mainstream right now. Bringing new approaches to weight management to a category and doing it well will generate scale faster than any lofty, moralistic mission ever will.

Your new approach needs to be new, but not weird, and present no barriers to adoption or explanation in the consumer’s social life. This is how you ride the Skate Ramp quickly.

The key is to understand the scalable outcome, or mix of scalable outcomes, that consumers are currently using you to fulfill. In very competitive areas of the market, the new brand often resolves a pesky trade-off long-established in the consumer’s subconscious. They’ll recognize when you’ve eliminated it, though.

Get in the market. Test. Listen.

Follow the consumer. Always.