by Frank Cowell | Updated Dec 8, 2023

This is a chapter from the best-selling book
Building Your Digital Utopia by Frank Cowell.

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When I talk about building brand, a lot of things are probably conjured in your mind that have nothing to do with the solution provided in this book. You might think about logos, taglines, vehicle wraps, billboards, and other kinds of advertising. However, I’m talking about something much bigger.

When I talk about brand, I’m referring to the reputation that walks into the room before you do. Everything your company says and does, or chooses not to do, contributes to that reputation.

As I’ve said, buyers have so many options these days that it is hard for any company to differentiate. The market is saturated, so how can you stand out? How can you differentiate your brand to your target audience?

I’m not suggesting you don’t need advertising. Far from it. You do need traditional forms of advertising, but those aren’t the things that are most effective at building brand today, and if you don’t build your brand, you will always be in a hamster wheel of marketing activities. You will be constantly chasing every opportunity without building any real equity.

A company that wants to generate leads could hire a call center or a telemarketing lead-generation firm to call constantly day after day, and they might generate the leads they desire. However, that methodology is becoming less effective. If you pour all of your energy into it, it will eventually run its course, and, more importantly, it provides zero equity. In other words, when the calling stops, everything stops.


So, what’s the key to effectively building brand today? Ultimately, it’s all about relationships. It’s about building real human connections by moving toward human-to-human interactions as much as possible. Everything stems from that human connection, and the more you invest in making those connections, the more momentum you will build in creating a brand that is differentiated from the oversaturated market.

It’s not the things on your invoice that build your brand. In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek talks about the importance of the why over the what, but I believe companies should start with who and then consider the how. I believe the how is where you create tangible differentiation—specifically a how that is built around a specific who.

You can inspire people with your why, but if you don’t develop an effective how, your why won’t matter. When you invoice a customer, your how doesn’t appear on the invoice, and it doesn’t appear on a receipt. It will never appear on the income side of a profit and loss statement—it will only ever appear as expenses—but it is the thing that matters most.

To invest in how, you need a long-term view. To put it another way, it needs to become a “lifestyle” that permeates your entire organization. It’s this overarching concept that people will be willing to pay for, and it is wrapped up in your who. It commercializes what you do as a company and makes it valuable.

Consider the success of McDonald’s. One can compare a McDonald’s cheeseburger to a steak at a nice restaurant and judge it harshly, but that’s not the company’s concept. Their concept is to provide fast, tasty, affordable food on a consistent basis. When you go there, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and, to a large degree, you are paying for that concept.

Some people look down on McDonald’s because it’s unhealthy, and everyone knows that if you eat there every day, it’s not good for you. However, providing a healthy experience isn’t their concept either. They’re not competing with health food restaurants. Everyone understands the concept of McDonald’s—after all, they were pioneers of the fast food movement—so customers know the experience they are going to get there. Nobody says, “Should we go to the high-end restaurant on the hill that sells a $55 burger topped with truffle oil and champagne steam-melted Gruyere or should we go to the McDonald’s on the corner for a Big Mac and fries?” The two restaurants aren’t competitors because their concepts are completely different—both their who and their how.

This is why the mental model of your brand is so important. When your concept is clear, then your commercial value will be clear to customers who value that concept. Immediately, you will stand apart from other companies that might, on the surface, seem to offer a similar product with similar features.

Your concept is the seed of your brand, but until it permeates your entire organization, it won’t guide everything you do. Your team has to get excited about it. They have to walk through the doors every morning ready to innovate
and fulfill the concept.

Southwest Airlines is another company with a clear concept. In fact, in a famous story, they received a series of complaint letters from a customer who was disappointed about the things the company didn’t offer. As told by Alex-
ander Kjerulf, founder and “Chief Happiness Officer” of Woohoo Inc.:

One woman who frequently flew on Southwest was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.

She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.

When the customer relations team couldn’t assuage her disgruntlement, her case was bumped up to the CEO of Southwest, Herb Kelleher. He dashed off a quick response to the customer that got right to the point:

Dear Mrs. Crabapple,

We will miss you.

Love, Herb.

The CEO knew the company’s concept, and he was crystal clear about the value of that concept for their target buyer. He wasn’t trying to be all things to all people or compete with airlines that operated under a different mental model.

Marketing legend Dan Kennedy, who has been called “The Professor of Harsh Reality,” likes to say that great brands repel as much as they attract. Sadly, companies today are working furiously to appease everybody. They are terrified that a customer will say something negative about them on social media, and this fear makes them generic and mediocre.

I’m not suggesting that companies should try to offend people, but when a brand has a clear concept, they are going to repel certain audiences and attract others. That’s not something to be afraid of. On the contrary, it is necessary for differentiation.


In order to build a brand, you have to build meaningful relationships, but how do you do that in today’s digital world? How do you create and elevate relationships if you’re not constantly in front of your customers? To do that, you have to start thinking of yourself as a media company. When you think of yourself as a media
company, you take a radically different approach to everything you do. What is the core of a media company? Content.

Of course, many marketing experts have emphasized the importance of content in marketing and brand-building, so what I’m suggesting isn’t new. However, when you combine your content with the approach that I discuss in this book, you’re going to find yourself creating exactly the kind of engagement you’ve been hoping for. Your competitors will be jealous of the level of engagement you produce.

In fact, one of the problems with content today is that most of it is boring and ineffective because companies aren’t clear on their mental model and their target buyer.

When you combine the three—a clear concept, a target buyer, and creative content—you get a potent mix.

As I said earlier, this is another example of a how built around a who.


Are there companies that have done this well? Certainly. Consider the example of Starbucks. Their commercial concept is called “The Third Place,” and the idea is for the company to become a third place in the daily lives of their customers: Home, Work, Starbucks.

In a Fast Company article, a Starbucks manager explained it this way: “We want to provide all the comforts of your home and office. You can sit in a nice chair, talk on your phone, look out the window, surf the web...oh, and drink coffee, too.” Notice that selling coffee isn’t even first on the list.

You go to work, then you head home. That’s the standard routine of a working person. But maybe between home and work you meet up with a friend or colleague at Starbucks. Maybe it becomes your regular pitstop on the way to work in the morning, or maybe it’s the place you take a break in the middle of the day. In that sense, it’s a lot like the pub in UK culture or the coffeehouse tradition in Italy.

Starbucks is so clear about this concept that they post it prominently on their website, where they describe the concept as, “A place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home...It’s not unusual to see people coming to Starbucks to chat, meet up, or even work. We’re a neighborhood gathering place, a part of the daily routine—and we couldn’t be happier about it. Get to know us and you’ll see: we are so much more than what we brew.”

Everything they do, including the content they create, is wrapped around that concept. Fortunately, you don’t need to have the massive budget of Starbucks to achieve this. Even if you can’t produce massive volume, you can begin to think strategically as long as you have a clear concept of who you are. When you can create value for your target buyer, you will cease to be unheard in the sea of noise that is today’s marketplace.


At this point, you might be thinking, “I understand what you’re saying, but there are so many options and tools and resources—it’s overwhelming!” Yes, even if you have the right mindset—a clear concept and a target buyer—the implementation can be overwhelming. The only way to get a handle on it is to have a framework to build on.

That’s what I want to give you in this book. I want to provide you with a working framework, supported by five core philosophies, that can guide you in implementing your strategy. What you build on that framework will become the digital ecosystem in which you implement specific campaigns to reach your target audience. I use the term ecosystem because you can’t approach this as if it were a machine. With a machine, you build it once, give it some oil and fuel from time to time, and just let it run. That’s not the approach I’m advocating. In nature, an ecosystem, unlike a machine, is a dynamic community of interacting organisms, and the health of an ecosystem is measured by energy flow.

When you have a balanced ecosystem, you have greater flow, and the entire ecosystem thrives. However, that balance is dynamic because individual elements within the ecosystem are constantly changing. Humidity rises and falls, weather patterns change, migratory patterns adjust and evolve. Almost nothing is static.

Even without the intervention of humans, an ecosystem can become out of balance. Fluctuations in weather patterns or natural features can produce massive changes. This concept is called the butterfly effect, which is defined as a phenomenon in which minute localized changes can produce big effects in a complex system.

All of the tools, resources, and platforms we have at our disposal today work together very much like an ecosystem. Balance is a delicate thing, with elements constantly shifting, and we have to take into account variability. The elements at play interact with one another and create ripple effects. When a specific audience interacts with your ecosystem, it creates widespread, possibly unpredictable results, and that audience, in turn, is influenced by elements outside of your ecosystem—and probably outside of your control.

There is a tremendous amount of complexity. That’s why you can’t just hire a marketing firm and a sales superstar and then walk away to focus on other things. Your ecosystem is constantly changing, which makes your implementation far more challenging than you might expect.

How can you even begin to get your arms around it?

To do so, I believe you need two things: a set of overarching philosophies and a strategic blueprint. I want to provide you with both. Now, it’s entirely possible that you already have a growth blueprint that you follow. If so, take the core philosophies that I share and apply them to the blueprint. I believe you will see massive improvement. In this book, I’ll be introducing you to the Digital Utopia Blueprint.

The approach I share here is not the “be-all end-all.” However, it is an approach that I’ve developed and matured, and I know from much experience that it works. If you’re currently disappointed with the results you’re getting, I believe the approach I teach in this book will produce noticeably better results.

This is a chapter from the best-selling book
Building Your Digital Utopia by Frank Cowell.

« Previous Chapter  |  Next Chapter »

Topics:Digital Utopia Methodology