The Winning Strategy Of Unbounded Brands

Patrick HanlonSeptember 5, 20237 min

Understanding the difference between “bounded” brands and “unbounded” brands is how toddler companies become unicorns.

Most companies provide their Users with solutions to their problems and slog away at becoming better, faster, cheaper, stronger, more powerful, more engaging, easier to use, better fitting, frictionless. These companies compete with other enterprises within their vertical: whether it’s banging their heads the over 100 other brands of blue jeans, 300+ brands of automobiles, or the hundreds of drinks to choose from when you woke up this morning — from coffee and tea to milk, Red Bull, Coke, energy hits, or just water.

If you were to graph how well these companies perform, you would discover that all the top performers bounce around near the top of a bell curve of baseline advantages (better, faster, cheaper, stronger, more powerful, better tasting, better fit, better feeling, easier to use, etc.). And despite endless points of differentiation: all jeans look, feel and fit pretty much the same. Any automobile transports us from Point A to Point B. And whether you’re drinking water, coffee, soft drink, bubble tea, or Red Bull, just about any choice you made this morning quenched your thirst or helped launch your day.

Once a competitor tries to outflank with a new advantage, the others counter in an endless tik-tok of react/response/repeat.

These brands bounce around for eternity inside their bell curve, like happy little atoms. They are bounded.

But according to Harvard mathematician László Barabási, some entities see that performance curve as merely game stakes. Having already exhibited successful baseline outcomes, the next move for these companies is to put a dent in the universe. Shoot the moon. Slingshot for Mars.

They become unbounded.

Example. In my book “Primal Branding” I spoke with Alastair Johnston, vice chairman at talent group IMG. Alastair represented golf legend Arnold Palmer. The objective at that time was to further Arnold Palmer’s career from a tremendous athlete to something more enduring.

“Ninety-nine percent of athletes endure as commercial properties only while they’re playing,” Johnston explained. To be perceived as a winner is very short term, as all the other athletes are trying to beat your record. That’s just sports.

“So, one of the things we tried to do was to build Palmer into being someone who is successful. Success is a lot more enduring than being a winner. Secondly, more people can relate to being successful than they can to winning.”

Johnston did not know it, but his insight was that Arnold Palmer was playing inside the bell curve. Every golfer in the world was trying to beat Arnold’s score, earn more titles, and become a better golfer. His agency understood that eventually someone would beat Palmer’s record and eventually edge him out of the winner’s circle.

Their new objective was to transform Palmer’s career from a great golfer to becoming something larger than golf.

In Arnold’s case, they transformed his brand vision from “Arnold Palmer: PGA champion” into “Arnold Palmer: successful businessman.” Suddenly, Arnold Palmer designed golf courses, sported a clothing line, appeared at conferences and in television commercials as the consummate successful business person. And don’t forget Arnold’s longest-lasting success: his bar call. “I’ll have an Arnold Palmer!”

Arnold Palmer was now positioned outside the bell curve. He was put on a pedestal. He became unbounded.

The template Johnston and his IMG team created for Arnold Palmer was also transposed to their golf pro clients who came after Arnold Palmer: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. When IMG merged with William Morris Endeavor in 2013, the model they had built for golfers Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods was activated for a whole new set of athletes, actors, musicians, and other performers.

The construct also has been borrowed and imitated by countless other athletes and performers outside of IMG/Endeavor, from Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to Rihanna and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Let’s look at Rihanna. Robyn Rihanna Fenty has won nine Grammy Awards, eight Billboard Music Awards, 13 American Music Awards and seven MTV Video Music Awards. But step back. The traditional arc for musicians has been to keep performing until you no longer have an audience: from struggling musician to Top10 hits to “The Best Of” to playing Las Vegas and YouTube videos.

There were plenty of career models for Rihanna to follow — from Ella Fitzgerald to Diana Roos — but Rihanna determined not only to be an award-winning singer. Instead, she stepped off the traditional music career path (her first hit single “Pon de Replay” dropped 15 years ago) to become a successful actress, fashion designer and businesswoman.

In partnership with LVMH, Rihanna launched her own makeup brand Fenty Beauty which, within weeks, reported over $100 million in sales. A partnership with Los Angeles-based TechStyle Fashion Group helped Rihanna launch her Savage X Fenty lingerie line. In 2019, LVMH and Rihanna announced her Fenty brand for high-end clothes, shoes, accessories and jewelry. And in October, 2020, Rihanna displayed the enormous value an award-winning star like Rihanna can bring to the fashion category, by enlisting talents like Paris Hilton, Willow Smith, Cara Delevingne, Bella Hadid, Normani and Paloma Elsesser to model in her Savage X Fenty Lingerie Fashion Show, Vol.2. In 2022, Rihanna became America’s youngest billionaire. Today (2023), she is worth $1.4 billion. Rihanna is unbounded.

Gwyneth Paltrow began her public career as an actress, but she looked no further than her own mother (respected actress Blythe Danner) to see the future in play for her as a female actor. Rather than following the career path from young ingenue to playing someone’s mother to facing fewer and fewer acting roles for older women, GP watched how friends like Mario Batali emerged from their imprint as chef to television celebrity to investor in Eataly in Manhattan (after a #MeToo scandal, Batali is no longer associated with Eataly).

Using her acting career as her platform, Gwyneth Paltrow smartly co-starred with Batali and food critic Mark Bittman in a PBS series, Spain…On the Road Again, which launched in September, 2008. That same year, Gwyneth wrote a homespun blog about beauty, fashion and wellness that outlined her take on those subjects. The result became goop, a place of “curiosity and nonjudgment” where shoppers can blend how they want to look, act and feel with their pocketbook and go wherever Gwyneth takes them. These days, she acts like she is a woman worth something north of $250 million.

Go, girl. Gwyneth is unbounded.

Beauty brand marketer Sarah Stein adds it up: “An established brand has a brand equity pyramid. ‘Unbounded’ reapplies that brand equity to a new area — a VERY exciting thought.”

The original American models for unbounded brands were probably Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. Benjamin Franklin was a writer, printer, scientist, inventor, philosopher, diplomat and politician. (One of his inventions, the Franklin stove, is still in use today.) Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the phonograph, and the moving picture. These adventures in sight and sound were powered by Edison’s General Electric Company. Edison’s innovative mind delved into other areas as well: Thomas Edison and Henry Ford made the first attempt to build an electric automobile 100 years ago, but were thwarted by large battery size. (Sound familiar?)

If you are a “Primal” brand, your chances of becoming unbounded are better than those brands bound by performance marketing drills. This is an exceptional claim and every marketer should take note.

Primal Branding was extracted by deconstructing the world’s most powerful Brands to see what similarities existed. Because many of the world’s most powerful brands are innately unbounded, Primal Brands also lean toward being unbounded.

Success is unbounded.

An aside: Some companies these days are being forced outside their bell curve by their own users and fans. Nike sued MSCHF, the small Brooklyn-based company for altering Nike Air Max 97s as “Satan Shoes” in collaboration with rapper Lil Nas X. The little devils only sold 666 of them, but the $226 billion Nike corporation responded with a slap.

In the $65 billion gaming industry, one of the biggest trends is “mods” (modifications). Modding culture has been created by fans who are so engaged, they are building their own games on top of existing (company-designed) games.

And fellow players today are geeking out — mods of standard games like “Minecraft” are more popular than the original game.

The elephant in the room:

What does it mean when your fans start building your product enhancements for you?

Back to unbounded: If you feel like you keep climbing the same mountain year over year, it might be time for a new mountain.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by Patrick Hanlon, Author of Primal Branding

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