Libby Morse
SVP, Creative Director

There Are Just Two Types of Brands

Which do you need to become?

I’ve been seeing a lot about categorizing brands these days: Brands are missionaries. Brands are maternal. I’m sure you’ve come across other examples.

These kinds of categories can be really useful. At the very least, they give you a starting point. And if they rankle you, there’s nothing wrong with having something to argue against.

But the categories that I’ve encountered never quite capture for me why people affiliate with or follow a brand, especially given how our relationships with brands have shifted so dramatically thanks to social media.

So here are two categories—just two, to make it easy—for you to think about: Obsessives and Emotives.

Affiliation with Obsessive brands says something about your commitment. An Emotive brand fuses itself to a big, deep-seated emotion, and then shows how all its features and attributes ladder up to that feeling.

The Obsessives win affiliation by going all in on one thing. It’s essentially Al Ries’ idea of positioning on steroids. An Obsessive brand assures you that whatever it does, it’s the most important, essential thing in the world—and it’s the linchpin for everything else. This obsessiveness can be high-minded or funny, or both—it’s like hanging with a very cool geek who’s obsessive on our behalf.

Casper Mattresses stands out in a utilitarian, commodity category because it’s asserted that the most essential thing you can do is sleep. Sleep isn’t just about being zonked out for eight hours or even looking all model-y when you get up in the morning. It’s everything. Look at Casper’s website. “Great sleep changes people.” “Great sleep is the key to living a great life.” The key.

Another Obsessive brand: Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line, which launched last fall. Its obsession is representation and inclusion: “Beauty for all.” Fenty’s ability to grab headlines with “40 boundary-breaking shades” in the name of this obsession also gave it the upper hand when other lines responded with the equivalent of uh, hey wait a minute, we have a lot of shades, too. I don’t doubt that Fenty filled a real need in the marketplace. But its genius is that even if you are a basic beige (like many of the teenagers I saw hanging around the Fenty counter at a suburban Sephora), you felt like its obsessiveness said something about your commitment to inclusion, too.

The Emotives aim not just to evoke an emotion, but to own it. Like the Obsessive, Emotives have their roots in earlier brand thinking—in this case, the purpose-driven brand. But with audiences ever more skeptical of being sold, Emotives have learned to go straight for the feels. The Emotive brand has, to borrow from Simon Synek, a big “Why”: it’s anthemic, and often positions itself –explicitly or implicitly—in contrast to the prevailing culture.

One way to figure out if you have an Emotive brand is to make a list of your truths—not features or attributes, but truths. They should all be big emotions or yearnings. There are plenty of good examples out there: Airbnb has dibs on belonging anywhere. Southwest has owned the feeling of freedom. YMCA is about togetherness in times of polarization. My personal favorite Emotive is Subaru and its ownership of “love”—a great campaign that’s still going strong.

At Lipman Hearne, we’re seeing how brands come alive when we think in terms of Obsessive and Emotive. It inspires stories that feel bigger and more focused simultaneously—and inspires new ways of thinking about how to talk to audiences about the core offers of any brand: identity, agency, and tribe.

If you’d like to know more, let’s talk! Email me at lmorse@lipmanhearne.com.