How do you build a brand to disrupt?

When was the last time you called to book a taxi?

How about phoned to make a hair appointment?

What about instagrammed your luggage?

Or felt full of regret for drinking cans of sweet fizzy drinks?

If you are still calling to book your haircuts, hiding your luggage with shame and feeling guilty about your soft drink habit, then you’ll definitely want to read on.

If you’re already using Treatwell for your hair and beauty bookings, carrying your Away luggage and bags with pride and guzzling ice cold Ugly Water, then you’re a testament to the success these brands already have had transforming their respective categories.

On Tuesday night a group of 40 startup founders and marketers came to Kings Place to hear from Joanna Christie, Global Brand Director at Treatwell, Jérôme Brustlein, Director of European Expansion at Away and Joe Benn, Co-Founder of Ugly Water share their stories and experiences. This was the first Building Brands to Disrupt event, created and hosted by The Big Thinks, to celebrate and learn from brands that are doing things differently.

So how do you build a brand to disrupt?

You need to find the thing in the category that makes the least sense AND FIX IT

Joe said Ugly Drinks came about when they saw that there was something so good about a cold soft drink, but something so bad about all the sugar and artificial chemicals in them.

Treatwell saw how antiquated it was that you’d need to call several salons during your work hours to get an appointment.

Away saw a gap in the market. Travel was becoming a lifestyle, but travel accessories like luggage was either cheaply made and not lasting, or more expensive than a trip itself. There was no customer advocacy in the category, and the opportunity lay in creating a lifestyle travel brand rather than a luggage brand.

The good news is that listening to customers doesn’t need to be expensive

Joe described how he and co-founder Hugh often just hide out in shops by the fridge, while every trip to the airport is research for Jérôme. The key thing is to make sure all employees can easily share things they’ve heard from customers and all teams have access to this. For Away this is a Slack channel, while for Ugly they use their online customer reviews to gather insight.

Data is great, but its real power comes off the screen

Away and Ugly have both used customer feedback to help shape product development. Using their direct to consumer website, this has helped Ugly launch their watermelon flavour in the US with confidence and a receptive fan base. Away have seen several collaborations and limited edition colours turn into permanent editions to the range after lots of positive community feedback.

Joanna had the monopoly on intimate waxing conversations for the evening. Treatwell have a whole team dedicated to business insight and use tools such as Hotjar to create heat-maps of their customer’s behaviour on their website and app. They are a performance driven business, and it’s by using this data they managed to uncover huge new audience opportunities such as men in Germany booking haircuts. They also have been looking to create more insight driven marketing campaigns, such as the recent Life Saving Wax campaign in partnership with Public Health England. Treatwell were seeing intimate waxing bookings grow 84% year on year, yet according to government statistics, the number of women attending their cervical screening is at a 20 year low with one in four women not going. This juxtaposition felt like a big opportunity. It has been the first campaign for Treatwell where they have taken the message through from the communications into the salons, giving their salon partners ways to have conversations with their clients about cervical screening when carrying out intimate waxing.

Branding is an ongoing process

Joe from Ugly admitted that your first attempt at creating a brand will always have a few mistakes. Even though you might think it’s great at the time. Brand is something that needs to evolve as you evolve. You know you’ve got something good when you start to see people you don’t know with your logo sticker on their laptops.

Joanna described her definition of brand is what is said about you outside of the room. You can construct it on paper, bit it is how it comes to life with your customers and partners which is key. She shared how Treatwell’s brand has taken time to create, taking nearly a year to develop their brand book. One challenge they had was juggling many country founders after several businesses merged. It took time to get everyone on board, and even with the brand book, it’s about constant reinforcement across different countries and with new joiners.

Values aren’t words, they are a way of operating

Jérôme at Away described how their company values are something that shape the way they do things. One value they have is ‘thoughtful’, reflected in their product design process, as well as their messaging and customer experience. Another value is ‘iterative’, and this comes to life in the way they use their community to feedback and use key markets like the UK to test ideas and approaches for other European expansion markets.

For Joe, the Ugly Truth isn’t just a brand positioning, it’s a way of being. It means speaking the truth to colleagues even if it’s ugly. For Joanna at Treatwell, their value of openness means they need to be open to listen to both each other and their customers.

Don’t silo online and offline sales, they work when they work together

Away have recently closed a large funding round and one of their key priorities is opening up new physical retail stores, alongside product and international expansion. For a brand that has been so successful at telling its story in environments like Instagram this might be surprising, and even the success of their first foray into physical stores surprised them. They expected the stores to work mainly as a top of funnel channel, driving brand awareness. Instead Jérôme described how each store they had opened not only became profitable much faster than they expected, but having a halo effect on online sales too.

For Ugly Drinks, there is no holding back when it comes to getting into large supermarkets like Tesco. Taking on established companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi means being in every place those household names are seen in. However, keeping a direct to consumer website is key. It enables the business to have a much larger product range than they could have in a physical story. As well as the direct relationship with their customer base, and the insights this generates, their website helps them offer services such as office delivery and subscriptions.

Scaling a good culture is hard, it’s always going to be a work in progress

There is no silver bullet for maintaining great culture as you grow, but making sure employees get to spend time face to face, even when offices are in different countries was very important for all three brands.

Helping people understand how the brand lives in the real world was also a key part of scaling culture. At Away, new employees go through cultural onboarding, while at Treatwell every new employee is given budget to book appointments with their salon partners and spend time responding to queries in the customer team.

When looking ahead at the 3 year plan, be prepared for change, lots of it.


Based in London The Big Thinks is a business consultancy built on the principles of Think/Do, meaning strategy is always linked to action. We help start-ups and scale-ups think expansively about their brand, product and customer challenges to unlock growth. Using our network of specialists we can take strategy through to solution in a fast, efficient way without draining internal resource.

The next Building Brands to Disrupt event is happening in September. If you’re interested in attending you can pre-register your interest here

A big thank you to The Great Little Events Company, Sarah McDonnell Design, Madame Geneva & Gent Gin Experiences, 3 Gents Event Catering and the community team at WeWork Kings Place for al their help and support. Photo credits to Annabel Staff and Bronac McNeill Photography.

How great business positioning is hard and boring (but totally worth it)

How great business positioning is hard and boring (but totally worth it)

How great business positioning is hard and boring (but totally worth it)

A great business positioning encompasses what you do, who you do that for and how you are different. But so many businesses struggle articulating this in a simple and singleminded way. This blog explores the steps needed to build a great positioning statement and how to make it live in everything you do.

How to make a car go faster

Imagine you are part of an Innovation Team at a major sports car brand. Now imagine that the sales of your flagship sports car, only released last year, have tanked after a competitor launched a very similarly priced and spec model that is 30% faster accelerating 0-60mph and a has a better top speed, while still being just as fuel efficient with the same level of CO2 emissions. The CEO has asked you to come up with an idea that makes the car faster to combat this. What would you do?

One place to start might be the engine. Boring out the cylinders, perhaps a upgraded exhaust system are all options. Perhaps it's worth looking at the technology within the car and building a new performance chip to allow more fuel and air into the engine in sport mode. Everyone gets very excited when you suggest a Nitrous Oxide 'Fast & Furious' special edition of the car. You go to the CEO with your ideas and she says that's no good, she confides in you that you need solutions you can roll out in the next 6-12 months or the company will be in serious difficulty. All those engineering solutions will all take to long and be costly to implement. 

So you now know you need sales in hurry. The obvious lever that lots of companies would pull at this point is price. Make it cheaper than the competitor and offer very attractive finance deals. You take this to the Finance Director but they say the company just can't afford to take that hit on the flagship model. 

Then you think about the context the car is seen in. Perhaps a partnership with a F1 team could create the association of performance with the model. Maybe creating something like an augmented reality or virtual reality driving experience and content around this would give consumers a simulation of speed. The Marketing Team say they did that two years ago with the another model, it was very expensive and didn't shift the needle on sales. No one is keen to repeat this. You try to convince them this time it's different, consumers are more aware of the technology and it has come on leaps and bounds, but to no avail. 

What options are left? You start to think about the other selling points of the car. The seats are comfy, it comes in lots of colours and there are lots of personalisation options. If you're being honest with yourself, this is no different from the other competitors, but perhaps if you could construct a new USP based on a benefit other than speed you could arrest the decline. It would require a lot of advertising budget though, which the Marketing Team say has already been committed into performance media just to keep the test drive numbers up. They have a small amount of budget left they could divert into advertising the other benefits, but nobody thinks this will be enough to change the company's fortunes around. 

The CEO gets increasingly frustrated with the lack of ideas. Think bigger she insists. Where can you go from here? When it comes to the 4 'P's you've pretty much explored everything. Product, price, promotion and placement. 

Rory Sutherland would famously say there is one very important thing you haven't really considered here = PERCEPTION. I'd say this is fifth 'P', but perhaps the most powerful lever of all. Consumers are human beings, and human beings are famously not rational. This means sometimes the answer is counter intuitive. We are all very good at rationalising our purchases once we've bought them, but human nature is fuelled by feelings, not facts. All you really need is for current and potential customers to feel in their hearts that the car is faster. This suddenly opens up a whole new range of possibilities.

Now you start to think about speed not in terms of miles per hour, but in terms how we experience it. That doesn't mean the answer is adding some go faster stripes, since looking fast isn't the same as 'feeling fast'. Feeling fast is that smile you have when you hear the noise of the engine starting it up. It's the way your stomach lifts as you put your foot down.  For most road drivers it's those small little moments of speed that count, like cornering roundabout, accelerating down an empty country road or beating someone at traffic lights. Now think about how that could play out on a test drive. Perhaps you create a new test drive route for the model that includes more country roads or roundabouts. Maybe you go so far as to plant a driver in the rival model to follow customers out on test drives. When the customer gets to some lights, the plant pulls up to the side and deliberately revs up then loses the race at the lights. Then when you get your own car washed at the weekend you can shake the feeling your car is actually faster than it was when it was dirty (this is a real thing, google it). You start to think about ideas like free car washing for all owners of your brand model at the dealership, not only does it add perceived value to the car that perhaps those owners will talk to others about but it allows the customer to build up a relationship with the dealer, increasingly the likelihood they'll upgrade to the next model. 

Reading the above you probably had lots of other ideas too, which is the point. The above is an example of a warm up exercise I use in workshops to demonstrate how important it is to have at the centre of your thinking an understanding of how we as human beings make decisions. Too often when faced with a business problem we put on our rational work hats and forget people have feelings too and those feelings can be powerful.

8 things to understand about the human brain if you work in advertising

When it comes to advertising your product or service, one thing to remember above all others is that your customers are real people, not lines on a spreadsheet or a slide in a marketing deck. With that in mind, here are 8 things to know about how we all make decisions and are influenced

1)      We are rationalising creatures, not rational creatures

We make subconsciously informed decisions and rationalise them afterwards. Leading with your product or service's rational benefits can only reinforce the decision, not create the need for the product. 

2)      We are always in 2 minds

Out brain has two distinct ways of processing things - instinctive and considered. Daniel Kahneman has pioneered this theory in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’. If I asked you what 2+2 was, your 'System 1' brain would instinctively react with '4', without any though. However, if I asked what 17 x 22 then you'd need to engage your System 2 brain, which consciously would start to work out the answer based on reasoning constrained by prior memory and knowledge. When thinking about your product and service, what parts of the decision are 2+2, and which parts are 17 x 22, and how should your communications be adapted accordingly. 

3)      We aren’t in control of our thoughts most of the time

This might come as a surprise but so much of our brain activity is subconscious and this can influence our actions. Is this unconscious bias why only 9% of Americans are over 6ft but 59% of US CEO’s? Quantifying the effects of the unconscious in ourselves, let along consumers is very hard but knowing it exists is a start to understanding it.

4)      The brain saves energy for the important stuff – so don’t challenge me!

Are brain is a cognitive miser –it’ll take the easiest well trodden thought path to save energy for a potential emergency when it might need to think quickly. The brain will do just enough to get by most of the time, which is why forcing it to think differently about something can be such an effort. This puts into context how hard it is for advertising alone to ‘change a consumer’s mind’ – it actually physically takes brain effort.

5)      More of the same please

In its efforts to get more efficient, brains like repetition. The more times a brain is exposed to something the more familiar it becomes with processing the stimulus, as the brain can minimise the number of neurons required to the bare minimum so the thought becomes easy and natural. Therefore if brains require practice to learn things, brands need to recognise continuity is critical. A brand can only hope to get resonance and build brain memory by having a clear message over time. Ultimately this is all about brands helping consumers make decisions without using too much brain power.

6)      Brains distort input to fit with what you already know

We can often find ourselves in a state of cognitive dissonance, a state of mind first coined by Leon Festinger. Cognitive dissonance is when we think one thing, but are actually doing another. For example when a smoker is fully aware of the inherent benefits of quitting, but in fact self-justifies the reasons why we’re not doing it. 

7)      Change what I do first, not what I think

Connected to the above, it is more important to change someone’s actions first, then their mind. This is where trial and price promotions can be so critical for brands to win over consumers.

8)      The brain can read other people’s minds

Within every brain there are mirror neurons. These fire when we observe the actions performed by another and they stimulate our ability to feel emotions by watching others. Video can be a powerful way to engage emotion in people for this very reason, so consider when creating content how you want people to feel, not just what you want to say.

Short is smarter

“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long blog post; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

To badly paraphrase the French Mathematician Blaise Pascal, sometimes less is more effort. However, using simple shorter simpler words can make you seem more intelligent (see Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Professor of Psychology at UCLA work on how the use of language can make one appear more/less intelligent)

From well crafted quips at one end to troll-tastic abuse at the other, Twitter has been both a brilliant and terrible advertisement for the power of character limits. However, just as Twitter announces trials of 280 character tweets in the search for new users , I believe there is a real case for format constraints to be a real force for better thinking.

Our brains have a tendency to seek the path of least resistance, which means adding extra slides or another paragraph often seems easier than simplifying the message. Yet, in a world of bite-size attention spans, we need to work harder than ever to keep our audience's attention.  Next time you're setting out to write an email or presentation…ask yourself if you had to tweet this, what would you say? 

Social media and the hyperbubble

Social media is making us less tolerant of other points of view, but all is not lost 

Brexit, Trump, Chilcot, Black Lives Matter. We are living in emotionally charged and often shocking times. While we might vote in secret, the debate over these issues is a very public one. However, what might surprise you is that what you have seen on a topic might be vastly different from someone else.

In theory, the huge myriad of news outlets, blogs and tweets should mean we are the first citizens in the history of democracy who have perfect information on the issues. However, if you look at how our sources of news have changed in the last 5 years, it starts to give an indication of why we might find ourselves perplexed by world events.

If you’re one of the 60% of the UK population that don’t get any news from a national newspaper[1]you might have noticed that the place you’re engaging in political and social debate has shifted to in your personal social network feed. So what’s the big deal? How is this any different from a news editor deciding which articles to publish? It’s different on 3 fundamental levels

1) We believe we’re seeing the whole picture

Imagine if you only saw one 20-minute news show a week from one TV channel? How worldly and informed would you feel on the topics? Now compare that 30mins the average adults spends on social media every day[2] scrolling through hundreds of snippets of news and edits of stories. Social media feeds are now a key source of news for 51% of people sampled from 26 countries in theannual report on digital news from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism[3]. For nearly 1 in 3 18-24 year olds social media is their main source of news, with Facebook being the most popular source of news. The sheer quantity of content flowing through our feed makes us feel empowered with knowledge about events from all over the world and all walks of life. Quantity however isn’t always the whole picture.

2) Friends like me

Research has shown we have a tendency to befriend people with similar views and values[4]. This certainly doesn’t change when it comes to your friends on social media and the types of sources you follow. Take your friends on Facebook. In the US, 91% of a white person’s Facebook friends are white. In fact, three-quarters of all white people had entirely white friend groups[5]. Now overlay similarities in ideology, religion and you can imagine how one person’s feed, and thus what they see on a particular issue like Black Lives Matter could be so different from someone else from a different background. Facebook’s own research found that in the US, on average 77% of people’s friends share the same political ideology. Of the hard news content that people’s friends share, 70.5% of these follows these ideological lines[6]. If the majority of content you see reinforces your own viewpoint, it makes it harder to grasp another contrasting perspective and the scale alternative points of view are held.

3) The algorithm knows what you like, and likes what you know

Algorithms that decide what to show you in your social media feeds tend to prioritises content from your friends or content they think you’ll like based on your past behaviour. Twitter used to just show you a timeline of all the activity from all of the people and sources you follow, but in March 2016 they rolled out a change that prioritises tweets from the accounts you interact with most. In June 2016 Facebook announced they would de-prioritise publisher content in favour of posts from friends and family.

If you combine these factors together, we are stuck in a self perpetuating ‘feed loop’. In digital times we must work much harder to jump out of our rivers of thinking to have a better understanding of the world and how to change it for the better.

Here are 3 simple things you can do to help you avoid digital groupthink:

  • Make random connections yourself – don’t wait for an algorithm to serve you something different. Go out and seek a random connection. Go into a newsagent and pick 3 things to read you never would usually. Hit I’m feeling lucky on Google. Just maintain an active curiosity rather than a passive receptivity to news and information.
  • Get in to the real world – strike up a conversation with someone unconnected to you about a topic you want to learn more about.
  • Collect clues and create your own hunches – when it comes to trying to understand an issue, if you only have time to skim through articles and videos, be like a magpie collecting interesting clues. Make time to theme these clues yourself and form your own hunches that would explain the behaviour or situation


[1] News consumption in the UK: 2014 Report Ofcom

[2] UKOM/comScore data UK 2015

[3] Reuters annual report on digital news

[4] Angela Bahns of Wellesley College in Massachusetts


[6] Source Exposure to Ideologically Diverse News and Opinion. E. Bakshy, S. Messing, L. Adamic. Science, 2015