Know the purpose of the brand — why does the brand need to exist in the world. Some of the best brands have a purpose that guides them and repairs a problem in the world. One favorite of mine is Whole Foods. Through the post-war era, farm stands became grocery stores which became supermarkets. Each step of that evolution, while seemingly positive at the time, further separated everyday consumers from the origins of their food. As a result, the food was optimized for operational efficiency, not for health or taste. Whole Foods has as its mission to nourish people and the planet and set the standards of excellence for food retailers. Importantly, this comes by holding their buyers and suppliers accountable for excluding artificial ingredients and preservatives from their offerings.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bryant Ison.
Mr. Ison is an independent Marketing and Innovation consultant and the former Chief Marketing Officer for Columbia Care, one of the largest multi-state operators of medical cannabis and CBD. He has over 18 years of brand marketing and innovation experience working on some of the world’s most iconic brands such as Pepsi, Band-Aid and Clorox Bleach. Prior to joining Columbia Care, Bryant led innovation and brand building activities at PepsiCo, Johnson and Johnson, and the Clorox Company.
Bryant began his career as a volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps serving in Mali, West Africa.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born in Milwaukee, WI as the second of five children. My dad was an engineer for GE in the medical systems division and my mom was a homemaker. Growing up with four siblings in suburban Milwaukee was such a great experience. There was always someone to play with and we would make up elaborate games for hours and stay out until the streetlights came on at dusk. We lived in this little neighborhood with endless cul-de-sacs and an elementary school in walking distance from our house.
Because my dad worked at GE, though moving up in the organization meant moving around the country. So throughout my childhood we moved a number of times — to Connecticut, and then to Cleveland, OH where I went to high school. As a consequence of moving and being thrust into new situations, I believe I learned to not be shy about being the new kid or not knowing anyone in a social situation as well as being “change ready.” I have never been afraid of change, in fact in my adult life I have incorporated it into my outlook. I am always attuned for the next big thing and I find that I can be very flexible and adaptable as situations change.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur and loved creating and building businesses. When I was in high school I started two businesses — one was a skateboard retail operation. I was a big skateboarder at the time and I thought that I could pick and sell skateboard products better than my local skate shop. However when I realized that retail was a full time job (I wish we had the internet back then!) I couldn’t keep up so I closed the business. Next I started a small business in high school silk-screening T-shirts. I saw a silk screening kit in a local art shop and thought to myself “I could do that”. As a result I made and sold T-shirts for years to the local swim team and even at Grateful Dead shows. Little did I know that my early entrepreneurial experiences would lead me to my current career path.
I’ve always been a product person, though. I love the tangibility of a physical product — picking it up and turning it over. I’m that person who can go to the grocery store and spend 2 hours — looking at the products and pricing and trying to deconstruct what the business was thinking in developing and presenting the product. Combine that with my love for the “new” and innovative it wasn’t long before I found consumer goods. I eventually attended the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. I was thrown into classes with kids straight out of consulting or banking. I had classmates who’s parents were senior business leaders of CEOs. For the first time, I realized that I could be part of that world. However instead of finance or consulting what really excited me was marketing and brand management. I love the “psychology of insight” that drives marketing. Trying to understand what problems people are trying to solve and how businesses can develop product solutions to better their lives has become a true passion for me.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, let’s define our terms. How do you define a Lifestyle Brand? How is a Lifestyle Brand different from a normal, typical brand?
For me, a lifestyle brand is one that transcends the natural boundaries of just “doing a job” or simply “solving a problem for consumers.” Whereas a typical brand tries to solve a problem for the consumer in a unique and innovative way (sometimes via functional benefits, sometimes via emotional benefits), a lifestyle brand asks you to join a lifestyle or a movement, not just use a product. A lifestyle brand is a brand that connects you to a way of life. Take the surf brand Roxy. Cute swimsuits for women are plentiful in the market. However Roxy connects you to the California surf lifestyle better than many other brands. Not only does that come in the swimsuit cuts, prints and designs, but to the imagery and story that surround the brand. It’s all about living that California surf lifestyle as a young woman.
What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?
The benefits of a lifestyle brand are numerous:
- Consumer stickiness — with many brands, when the benefits are similar, consumers default to price. WIth a lifestyle brand, you are building an audience with a set of shared beliefs. It’s easy to pick a brand on price, but you can’’t put a price on a community of like minded people
- Pricing power — lifestyle brands can insulate themselves from pricing pressure because they are selling something more than a product — they’re selling the dream of living a lifestyle. I may not be rich, but by driving a Tesla it makes me feel like I could live a part of that dream
- Community — when you create a lifestyle brand you create a community and once you have a community, you can expand the offerings and solutions that you offer that community.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved Lifestyle Brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
So the classic lifestyle brand is the street brand SUPREME. Supreme has done a phenomenal job of building a community around skateboarding and street wear. As a result the community is connected through a shared sense of lifestyle. The result is that any new product release generates an enormous amount of buzz and interest among the community — often resulting in product scarcity and a healthy secondary market. What impresses me is the ability for everyone from a skater in California to a kid in Utah to feel connected to the brand and the lifestyle. Replicating another brand like Supreme is not easy or obvious. The core element is authenticity. If the brand doesn’t spring from the well of an authentic lifestyle then it will feel off — particularly to the core audience that actually lives the lifestyle. Likewise, if the brand grows too fast into audiences that are not authentic, it loses the lifestyle meaning quite quickly. Take the brand Ocean Pacific from the 80’s. Started as a California beach lifestyle brand it grew quickly until every kid in Ohio had an item — that’s the moment when the brand becomes disconnected from the lifestyle. It doesn’t feel authentic anymore!
Can you share your ideas about how to create a lifestyle brand that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
In my experience the best way to create a lifestyle brand is to discover a lifestyle that people are passionate about (i.e. health and wellness, tennis, surfing, etc) and understand what motivates the “core believers”. What is their background, what is their story? How would the product be used by the core believers? What are the subtle cues that the core believers identify as authentic to the product experience. The packaging should also reflect the core values and design cues from other products that the core believers use. Take the example of GOOP. They have very much captured the values and attitudes of upper middle class, wellness forward women. From the products offered, to the language used, they have done an amazing job in creating a modern female wellness brand.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I’ve seen two main mistakes:
- Making it TOO focused on the core believers so that others who aspire to the lifestyle can’t connect to the products.
- Making it NOT authentic — if the brand tries to co-opt the lifestyle of the core believers it comes off as false and trite. Or as my son would say, “It looks like a bunch of 40-year-olds trying to market to teenagers”
How do you avoid it? Understand the “core believers” as well as understand the larger, broader growth target.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a lifestyle brand that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Immerse yourself in the community that you’re targeting. Understand their values, the language, the personality, the loves and hates. Understand what products they use and why. Understand what are the things that they are passionate about and what products might connect others to the lifestyle.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Know your tribe — before you begin to create the brand know the “true believers” — what they value and the codes and cues of the group. A brand that does this very well is the leisurewear brand LuluLemon. They have a very clear idea of who their tribe is and they reflect it in every touchpoint. From the sales people that they recruit in their stores (who sometimes may be yoga teachers themselves) to the imagery that’s used in all of their marketing collateral.
- Know the story of the brand — how has the brand come about? Is there an origin story? By now everyone on the plant knows the origin story of Warby Parker. How two Harvard MBA students were dissatisfied with the cost of eyeglasses and how they set about to disrupt the market. A good origin story does many things. It connects the consumer to the brand as well as helps to connect the brand into the community and world by humanizing it. People like to buy from people, not corporations
- Know the purpose of the brand — why does the brand need to exist in the world. Some of the best brands have a purpose that guides them and repairs a problem in the world. One favorite of mine is Whole Foods. Through the post-war era, farm stands became grocery stores which became supermarkets. Each step of that evolution, while seemingly positive at the time, further separated everyday consumers from the origins of their food. As a result, the food was optimized for operational efficiency, not for health or taste. Whole Foods has as its mission to nourish people and the planet and set the standards of excellence for food retailers. Importantly, this comes by holding their buyers and suppliers accountable for excluding artificial ingredients and preservatives from their offerings.
- Know the packaging codes and cues — a great example of this is one of my favorite cannabis brands Lowell Herb Co. Lowell looks to connect to an older, more agrarian time when cannabis was connected to the land. Sounds great, but look at the packaging codes and cues. Very premium, bespoke and thoughtful packaging makes you feel like you are living the lifestyle it represents. The brand rehabilitated old, classic cigarette machines from the 1930’s for a classic feel that transports you to a different time
- Know how the brand experience comes to life for consumers — this last item is probably one of the most important and one of the most difficult for most brands to execute — mainly because not all of us fully live the lifestyle that we’re connecting with. One brand that’s been able to do this very well is the female wellness brand GOOP. In addition to a very curated product selection, GOOP creates a ton of very good content and notably holds a bi-annual conference where true believers can attend sessions on wellness and fully partake in the GOOP lifestyle
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It is absolutely shameful that we as a society have not make big strides in ridding the world of consumer plastics. Even as we’re finding that every human has some amount of micro plastics in their body, there is not enough being done by consumer groups and corporations to find a replacement for plastic. I would love to see a major corporation make radical changes in their use of virgin plastic and set the example for suppliers and retailers to follow.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I know that he can be a polarizing figure now, but I have enormous respect for Elon Musk as a visionary and business person who can make that vision a reality. We have many people who are visionaries and many who are executers, but Elon is one person who has truly remade our society for the better. Without the Tesla, I challenge that the electric car would not be a reality for another century. I would love to discuss with him how we could tackle some of my passion projects such as clean water and elimination of plastics.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.