Building A Better Brand Pyramid: Lessons From Ancient Egypt

By Jeff Hirsch

“The Blink Factor” is a way of thinking about packaging and graphics developed by Jean Pierre Lacroix, my good friend, long-time business collaborator and President of Shikatani Lacroix Brand Design.  J.P. talks about how you only have “the blink of an eye” to convey a complex, emotional, proprietary brand message to the consumer as she walks down the aisle at retail to convince her to buy your product instead of your competitor’s.

 The struggle here, which runs through every aspect of great marketing, is the need to transcend the obvious and find the personal values, in the brand’s unique context, that strike the most resonant chord with its consumers and capture its singular essence. This cannot be a “fill-in-the blanks” or a “paint-by-numbers” exercise.  It sounds so simple, but distilling reams of research material, business facts and feelings to a simple graphic and a few words is always a daunting challenge.

The internal business versions of “The Blink Factor” are the charts, graphs, shapes and icons that help us organize, focus and communicate our thoughts in planning presentations.   With the advent of PowerPoint, the big management consulting companies pioneered the trend toward making presentations with a minimum of copy.  Analysis was delivered visually in a collection of slides characterized by a series of charts filled with shapes, arrows and words interacting in all kinds of ways.

The purpose was noble. There is nothing more elegant than a simple graphic that communicates quickly and powerfully.  Unfortunately, two side effects emerged. The first was that writers and presenters often got carried away, cramming way too many graphics (and words) on a page, rendering the message nearly incomprehensible instead of communicating with clarity.

It is just as common to see the flip side of this phenomenon, the second side effect of relying on visuals: The dumbing down of complex ideas. Many examples are easily found, but the greatest, groan-inducing abuse is typically personified by the vaunted Brand Pyramid.

These come in many varieties.  My first exposure to the pyramid in a marketing context came from “values research”, where we use in-depth interviews to ladder up to express brand essence as a “terminal value” such as confidence, security or comfort.  The pyramid is used as an upside down funnel to organize consumer feedback.  Starting broadly at the base, we list consumer perceptions of concrete or abstract offerings, ladder up to functional and psychological benefits, and ultimately reach a terminal value at the tip of the pyramid to represent what the brand stands for.

In the case of Walt Disney World, for example, the “offerings” of physical safety and pristine cleanliness might lead to a feeling of psychological safety that ultimately builds to a utopian value of “The World As It Should Be.”  At Starbucks, the stimulation of strong coffee paired with attentive service and a comfortable environment might ladder up to “Community.”

It’s easy to take an iconic brand like Starbucks, work backwards to construct a pyramid and recognize its ultimate “brand value.”  “Community,” rather than “coffee,” is a much more powerful organizing principle and platform for marketing, but we already know that. The more difficult task is when you’re starting from scratch on an existing brand that is struggling or new product.

Again, the struggle is to transcend the generic and superficial to express the singular feeling that captures brand essence and moves consumers. But all too often, a proscribed format encourages what can only be described as going through the motions and intellectual laziness. For example, we recently saw a segmentation study with three brand pyramids, each representing a different product line in the company’s portfolio.  At the top of each pyramid was exactly the same thing: “Happy to have a solution for hectic, busy days.”

Clearly, this is not helpful.  There’s little emotion, no values are represented, and most importantly, the phrase does not differentiate the product lines from their direct competition or even each other.  You might wonder how a company staffed with smart MBA’s and talented ad agencies can spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on people and research to reach such unenlightening conclusions. Sadly, this happens frequently.  But we can do much better.

Perhaps we should go back to the source and look to the ancient Egyptians for inspiration as we contemplate building our brand pyramids.  Burial rites for pharaohs were meant to ensure immortality, and the pyramids were conceived as a series of steps, gigantic stairways to the heavens.

Now that’s an inspiring mindset for marketers!  Aim high, shoot for the stars, look to the heavens.  Do we want to be just another “happy solution” or do we want our brands to be transcendent? Do we want to be a flash in the pan or strive for brand immortality? The house brand of vodka tastes good enough and is fully capable of providing a “happy solution” of comfort, stress relief or social lubrication. But people pay a lot more to sip Ketel One or Grey Goose, even when they mix them the beyond recognition with juices and other ingredients, because these brands project “good taste” and other positive attributes on to the drinker. The result is a much more profound and rewarding experience compared to the generic, functional benefits offered by bar vodka.

Pyramids were also associated with light, as the shape represented the rays of the sun. Many were built with white limestone in order to make them appear brilliant from a distance.  We certainly want our brands to shine, but how much more powerful are they when viewed by consumers with what we might call an inner glow?

There was a lot behind pyramid walls. Pharaohs were buried with common household items so they could get along in the afterlife, but interred with jewels and treasures as well.  Marketers should also think about what lies beneath the pyramid, but not in materialistic terms.  We need to stare into the souls of our brands to determine what is truly unique, identifying and illuminating their true brand character.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor were the pyramids of Egypt.  We can zip through a meaningless, fill-in-the-blanks exercise, or we can set out on a rigorous, thought-provoking journey to discover our own inner-glow.  Ultimately, that’s what will set your brand apart from competition.









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