Branding for Builders

Updated: Apr 5, 2018

How Netflix defined a brand that helped it to build a great product, and vice-versa.

I grew up in marketing, switched over to product, and became interested in branding after success building Sesame Street, Schoolhouse Rock, and Madeline software. I signed well-established brands to long-term relationships, then brought the brands to life within children’s educational software.

Here’s my definition of a brand:

1.) The positioning model describes the first three components of the brand definition: positioning, customer benefit, and personality.

2.) The brand pyramid adds the two remaining elements: aspiration and emotion.

3.) The evolution of Netflix shows how the non-member homepage — the “store window” of the site— evolved in tandem with the brand over twenty years.

You’re already an expert in positioning and don’t know it yet. Want proof? What’s the first word that pops into your head when I mention the car brand, “Volvo?” For most, the response is “safety.” This example demonstrates Volvo’s ability to place an idea in your head, relative to competitors, and that’s the definition of positioning.

To apply the first model, ask yourself three questions:

1.) In simple terms, how do you describe your product or company?

2.) How does it benefit customers?

3.) How do you define its personality? (The question behind the question: how do you want your product to relate to customers?)

Here’s the model applied to Netflix:

If you try this positioning model on your own, here are some tips:

  • Use clear, precise sixth-grade language. Consumers are busy and don’t have time to parse complicated ideas.

  • Be brief. Most teams begin with lots of complicated ideas. The key is to simplify and focus on a few, easy-to-communicate ideas.

  • In answering the “personality” question, ask yourself, “If someone met my company or product at a cocktail party, how would I like folks to describe him or her?” Defining the personality of your product describes how you want your brand to relate to customers.

Volvo is a ninety-year-old company. They have spent billions of dollars on advertising and have consistently invented new safety features to own the word “safety.” Netflix is only twenty-years-old, but my guess is decades from now the one word they will own is “entertainment.”

In the long-term, what’s the one word you’d like to own for your product or company?

This framework builds on the positioning model and “ladders up” to define emotional benefits for customers as well as the “something bigger” that inspires your team. For this exercise, think long-term.

Why does the brand model incorporate emotion? The simple answer: it makes things memorable. Think for a moment about your childhood memories. My guess is they all have emotional elements. The joy of a surprise birthday party? The sorrow of losing a grandparent? Maya Angelou describes this phenomenon best:

Acknowledging emotion in the brand framework helps make products memorable.

The brand pyramid has four levels, and the intent is to read it from bottom to top. The base contains product attributes or features and the other elements ladder up from this foundation.

Below, I explain each level of the pyramid along with advice on how to approach the exercise on your own. Again, start at the bottom, with the product attributes as the foundation.

Product attributes:

What are the product features that deliver benefits to customers?

Product benefits:

As in the previous positioning model, how does your product improve customers’ lives? (You can cut and paste your description of customer benefits from the first positioning model.)

Emotional benefits:

How does your product make customers feel?

Something bigger:

In the long-term, if you fully deliver the product and its emotional benefits to your customers, how might your product dent the universe? Think twenty years into the future.


The headline provides an executive summary of the model. In cases where you develop an advertising campaign, it is the title of an ad campaign.

I’ll illustrate the model first using Apple as I think it’s helpful to see the pyramid in the context of a well-established brand:

For Apple today, the product attributes — the “bits and bytes” of what they deliver to us— are mobile hardware devices, along with the digital products and services they provide on these devices.

The benefits to customers are the ease of use of Apple’s human-centered design that makes customers more productive and creative.

How does Apple make customers feel? We feel imaginative. We feel free.

The “something bigger” of Apple products? Think for a moment about the Apple “Think Different” ad campaign, featuring Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein. All four are revolutionaries of their time. What is Apple’s “something bigger?”

It’s “Revolutionary Innovation.

Consider the power of the Apple brand. Would you pay a few hundred dollars more for an electronic device that promises “revolutionary innovation?” Each year, hundreds of millions of customers do. This premium illustrates the economic power of a brand.

Here is the brand pyramid applied to Netflix:

At Netflix, Neve Savage was one of my marketing partners. I joke that he tattooed, “Movie Enjoyment Made Easy” to my forearm so I wouldn’t forget the phrase.

If you think back to the early days of Netflix, we were a startup competing with Blockbuster, a retailer with 8,000 stores and $8 billion in revenue.

But the Blockbuster experience sucked.

I can remember walking to our neighborhood Blockbuster, wandering the aisles, waiting in line to pay, then bringing a movie home to discover that none of my family wanted to watch the movie. Even worse, I had to pay late fees when I forgot to return the film.

Netflix’s early DVD-by-mail service had an unlimited monthly subscription. The goal was to delight our customers with lots of great movie choices, which arrived the next day in the mail, and later, instantly via streaming.

The “something bigger” was to deliver an entertainment experience that transported you to the magical place movies can take you — to escape reality. The intent was that the service would be so simple that the technology and interface would fade into the background so customers could immerse themselves in the movie.

Here are the tips I give to product and marketing teams as they apply the brand pyramid model:

  • Product attributes. What are the features or components of your product that consumers buy or use to enjoy the benefit of your product? In the early days of Netflix, it was 100,000 movies on DVD, with one-day delivery, no late fees, and a website where you built your queue. Today, it’s tens of thousands of streaming movies & TV shows and, increasingly, original content. Product attributes can and will change over time — that’s where the innovation happens. The other levels of the pyramid, however, stay relatively constant.

  • Product benefits. These are the same benefits from the first positioning model. Just make sure that the product attributes enable the product benefits.

  • Emotional benefits. If you built a world-class product that delivers the benefits you describe, but ultimately exceeds customers’ expectations, how would customers feel? Make sure the words describe feelings.

  • Something bigger. Many teams struggle with this part of the exercise. My coaching: Think Big. Apple delivers revolutionary innovation, Nike enables customers to fulfill their full human potential, and SpaceX is working to save the human race by colonizing Mars. The “something bigger” is meant to inspire your team to build a great product and company over fifty years.

  • The headline. It took Apple tens of millions of dollars to create their “Think Different” campaign. So don’t expect a few hours of work to be as impactful. In the case of Netflix, “Movie Enjoyment Made Easy” was not intended to be seen by customers, but the headline summarized the brand pyramid in a way that I can still remember.

The important thing is to take your best shot at defining the model, then explore the various ideas with consumers via focus groups, surveys, but most importantly, A/B tests.