You Have A Trust Problem

Most brands don’t have an awareness problem—if only we could get in front of more people then we’d get more business!—they have a trust problem.

People know you exist, they just don’t believe you’re right for them.

This is hard to hear and even less fun to talk about in meetings. Trust problems aren’t sexy. They can’t be solved with money and funnels and ad campaigns.

When you’re solving a trust problem, there’s no clear roadmap to follow or metrics to measure. This is about strategy, not tactics, and more than anything it demands empathy. Good ole’ emotional labour.

That said, how do you work on a trust problem?

Be consistent.

Your brand isn’t your logo, it’s the story I tell myself every time I see it. Strong brands are consistent brands—everything they do and every touchpoint they have with their audience reflects everything they’re about.

Consistency means we know exactly who you are, what you stand for, and what we can expect when we buy from you. It makes you a strong yes to the right people and a strong no to the wrong ones. This polarizing reaction is what you want.

Before you layer on new tactics (see the aforementioned funnels and ad campaigns), start with where you are and who you’re already serving. Look for the gaps. Address those first.

It’s tempting to try, but you can’t buy trust. You have to earn it.


Caution! Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not launch another Facebook ad campaign until you’ve addressed this first.

The Iceberg Theory of Marketing

Behold! The iceberg theory of marketing.

There’s what we see: product, tactics, messaging, etc.

And what we feel: values, strategy, brand, etc.

The tangible versus the intangible. The explicit versus the implicit.

You with me?

The things we can see, we’ll refer to that as “above water”, are what people think they want: a budgeting software, a new mug, etc.

The things we can feel, we’ll refer to that as “below water”, are what people actually want: empowerment, sustainability, etc.

Everything above water requires hard skills, like coding or throwing clay on a wheel, to develop.

Everything below water requires soft skills, like empathy and creativity, to develop.

The tangible stuff scales with money.

The intangible stuff scales with emotional labour.

When you work at the tangible, above water stuff your customer experience will improve. You will see short-term gains.

When you work at the intangible, below water stuff the trust between you and your customer will strengthen. You will lay the foundation for long-term growth.

You can, and must, develop both.

The tip of the iceberg does not a business make. That’s how you get fragile companies and hollow brands that crumble unexpectedly (think of all the VC-backed companies we’ve watched fail in the last year…).

You cannot, no matter how tempting it will be, ignore what’s going on below water. The work is less sexy down here and progress is harder to measure (it’s easy to know when ads are working but how will you measure empathy? Creativity?), however, this is where change lives.

Resilient brands are rooted brands. All the above-water stuff we see as customers (social media profiles, products, advertisements, web copy) is an expression of what’s going on below (strategy and values). Products reflect values. Tactics reflect strategy. Messaging reflects brand. You can mess up the tangibles if you’ve got a strong foundation. If your audience trusts you and is enrolled in the change you represent, they’re going to be a lot more forgiving when your app breaks or you send out the wrong link in your newsletter. It’s not that it makes mistakes okay! It simply means that your audience trusts you to figure it out. They’re not going to seek out alternatives at the first sign of inefficiency or discomfort.

You cannot build a business by writing code or making mugs, by only working above water. That’s how you end up with a commodity.

What we truly want, what we’re actually buying, and the change you seek to make lives below. This is how you build something remarkable.

Start there.

When is doubt, look there.

And remember: marketing is a privilege.

It’s a privilege to be able to show up and advocate for a group of people that trust you to lead the way.

Use that responsibility wisely.


My expert graphic skills at work AGAIN, aren’t you lucky. There are about a zillion ways you can slice and expand on this theory but this feels like a good place to start. And it’s certainly not original to think of it in terms of an “iceberg”, this is simply a take on this theory that makes sense for my brain. See here for iceberg theory and applying the iceberg theory to content marketing.

Your Competitive Advantage

Empathy, your competitive advantage is empathy.

It’s an advantage because few people are willing to put in the hard work to develop it. It requires humility to admit that you don’t know anything about the person sitting across from you. It takes curiosity, compassion, and courage to hold space and advocate for an experience that’s not your own.

Empathy is the only shot you have at getting to know your audience and building something that serves them.

You can’t outsource it. You can’t buy it. And you can’t make the change you’re seeking to make without it.

The best thing about empathy?

It’s a skill all of us can learn.


Taken at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It’s a journey, a climb, or some such reference?

Early Adopters vs Everyone Else

If you want to appeal to early adopters, you need to sell them on how innovative you are.

If you want to appeal to just about anyone else, you need to sell them on why they can trust you.

Early adopters seek innovation. They want the newest, shiniest thing. They like risk. They’ll put up with things breaking because it’s worth it to be ahead of the curve. They’re buying the cause the product represents.

Everyone else seeks trust. They want the thing that will work, every time. They like certainty. They’ll choose the thing that’s proven to work for people like them. They’re buying the security the product gives them.

All of us seek to be understood. We pick the thing that helps us tell the world who we are and what we believe.

Whatever you’re selling, innovation or trust, your marketing needs to be focused on proving it.


Taken on yesterday’s coffee break. Do you get your coffee from a chain because you like knowing exactly what you can expect… or do you seek out new places?

Where’s Your Long Tail?

If you’re building a business, it’s helpful to concentrate your efforts on the smallest possible audience you can serve. To get realllyyyyy specific.

This is hard for most of us. We want to be liked, and we have this idea that being liked means being liked by everyone rather than by 1,000 true fans. It’s hard to hear that someone doesn’t enjoy your work and say to yourself, “It’s OK, it’s not for them”.

We also believe that to make enough* money we need a big audience. So we go straight for the masses, we play to the middle in an attempt to appeal to everyone. We file down our edges because we don’t think we can afford to turn people away.

The irony, of course, is that the more we appeal to the masses the less appealing we become. 

Better to focus on your long tail, the smallest possible audience you can serve. Who are those people? Where are they? What do they believe? What can you offer them that no one else can? What can you promise them?

Great, now go prove it.


Spotted as part of the display at The Irish Design House in Riverdale (typewriters certainly aren’t for everyone in 2020…), who are a great example of finding your long tail. Aside from owner Sinéad’s local fashion label, they only carry handmade Irish crafts. Not European crafts, not craft from anywhere, but a small and curated collection of handmade Irish goods for the people who are looking for exactly that.

*arbitrary metric alert

Marketing vs Advertising

What is marketing?

  • Marketing is earning people’s attention, time, and trust
  • Marketing is done with people. It’s multi-directional
  • Marketing is relational
  • Marketing is storytelling
  • Marketing is dependent on community

How marketing scales: you build something worth talking about.

What is advertising?

  • Advertising is paying for people’s attention by interrupting them
  • Advertising is done to people. It’s one-directional
  • Advertising is transactional
  • Advertising is telling people to do something
  • Advertising is dependent on algorithms and optimization

How advertising scales: you spend more money.

You can always opt-out of advertising. You can never opt-out of marketing.


Banking On Virality Isn’t A Plan

Yesterday I watched a great interview between Scott Galloway and Derek Thompson on how Netflix, Disney, and Amazon are vying for content and distribution.

A couple things Derek said stuck with me, and this marketing wisdom applies to any industry:

“To sell something familiar you want to make it surprising. To sell something surprising you want to make it familiar.”

and…

Banking on virality is not a plan. 

When you believe content can go viral, when you rely on something going viral in order to achieve the (business) outcome you want… that gives you an excuse to not work on a marketing plan.

When you bank on outcomes, it’s easy to overlook the process.

If you say to yourself, “Hey I made something great who WOULDN’T love this and/or me” and you believe in the virality myth, then you think success will just happen. You find yourself believing that your job is making The Thing and that the rest (people finding and using The Thing) will take care of itself.

But we know that some of the best books, songs, and movies failed until they found the right distribution channel. Same goes for businesses. Same goes for ideas. Often something has to come from the “right” person/place in order for us to pay attention.

Content people downplay distribution. Yes, you need to build something great, but you also need to get it in front of the people who are going to care (or, who you can make care). To do that you need to understand the attention platforms (aka distribution channels) that already exist. The people you want to reach… who already has their attention?

If you care about the change you’re trying to make, offloading the responsibility of people finding out about you/your product/your business isn’t a good plan. In fact, as Derek says, banking on virality isn’t a plan to begin with.

To me, this is the interesting thing about growth hacker marketing. People pull stunts to get eyeballs but then don’t necessarily put a plan behind what they’ll do with those eyeballs once they have them (conversion, retention). Growth hacking optimizes for the short-term without thinking about (or worse, at the expense of) longevity.

You can’t control outcomes, but you can control the process.

Don’t outsource your process. Don’t absolve yourself of the responsibility of the change you seek to make. Have a plan, always.

Is Your Marketing Strategy a Comparison Trap?

We spend so much time worrying about “the other guys”.

How do we stack up? How do we convince people we’re better?

We want to stand out. We want to be the go-to financial planner for young professionals or the preferred webinar software for solo-entrepreneurs. However, so many businesses build websites or curate social media feeds that look and sound exactly like everyone else in their space. They model themselves after another financial planner or webinar software that’s already successful. Thinking they’ll be like them “but better” (faster, cheaper, more convenient, etc).

Here’s what we’re forgetting…

If you look and sound like the other guys then you’re setting yourself up to be pitted against them. You’re asking to be compared. When your website or social media looks and sounds like every other financial planner or webinar software you’re making your potential customers work extra hard to figure out if you’re right for them. People don’t have the energy for that, so they go for the most popular option. They pick the category winner.

If you’re going to play the game the way everyone else is playing it then the only way to win is by coming out on top. By having the resources to be a little bit faster or cheaper or louder. For a lot of businesses, especially those just starting out, this isn’t possible. Not to mention it’s exhausting.

What if you focused less on competing and more on positioning? What if instead of trying to become the category leader, you created your own category?

I’m not saying you should ignore your competition or industry standards. It’s important to know where you stand in your customer’s eyes and what their expectations are. It’s important to know what’s worked in the past and what rules exist in your industry.

Take all that information, get really clear on who you’re for, and carve out a space that’s all your own—something that’s unmistakably you. Know the rules so you can choose which to uphold and which to break. Familiarity is important (you want to remind people of something else they already understand) but you have to set yourself apart.

It’s about coming across as the only option, not the best one.


Cheese Magic! Taken at Kensington Market in Toronto.