Ever feel like your brand is underappreciated or that you really deserve more attention than you’re getting? Or perhaps wondering why you’re failing to convert on the awareness you’ve managed to build? You probably have a swagathy problem.

I spend a lot of time reflecting on relationships. Those I maintain with colleagues, friends, my wife, and those I maintain with brands both personally and professionally. As a brand strategist, this is my job, and as a human, this is the lens through which I view the world. Relationships are what matter most to me personally, and an obsession for me professionally. Why do some work and others result in disaster? How does Trump connect with so many people who are nothing like him, while Hillary fails to connect with those who share 90% of her same ideals? How has charity:water thrived while countless other nonprofits with important causes struggle to get traction?

While my questions surrounding consumer behavior will persist until I’m lying cold in my grave, I can say today with confidence that I feel a little clearer on what it takes to build and monetize brand relationships.

I believe that brand success now and in the near future is going to be determined by something we’re going to call “swagathy.”




Simple enough, right? In theory, yes.

But when you break it down and look across the brand universe, you find very few brands who’ve truly found their swagathy and the success that comes with it. Years ago, there were plenty of brands who thrived with swagger alone. Probably no example is clearer than The Marlboro Man, but there were plenty of other cocky brands strutting their stuff and cashing in. (Anybody remember The Noid?) And at the other end of the spectrum are brands like Nordstrom, who built their business on empathy. Delivering on customer needs through true understanding of their pains and desires, and building the service model to align.

But I contend that these are both failing models of brand-building today.

  • Swagger without empathy will get you known but despised, as consumer expectations of personalization and service continue to rise. Brands built on swagger will need to build empathy to be more than a short-lived phenomenon.

  • Empathy without swagger will get you loved by the three people who actually notice you in our crazy, noisy world. Already successful brands with a high empathy quotient will need swagger to maintain relevance and attract new customers.

You have to have swagathy to thrive these days. The magnetism of swagger to draw people to your brand + the empathy to build lasting relationships with them. Success going forward will be found by those brands who can strike the appropriate balance for their market.

What does this balance look like?

While your brand’s perfect balance of swagathy will be determined first and foremost by your deep understanding of your current and ideal customer, as well as by your scale and budget, there are some winning approaches that are going to succeed on any scale. For example, the combination of original Branded Content and Human-centered Design in product and service will be big winners. What Apple has done through the combination of aspirational marketing and intuitive product design IS replicable, even though their success has put them in a stratosphere that few brands will ever attain.


User-generated content will also continue to be huge, but its purpose will shift from being the marketing strategy to being the outcome of a better strategy.

Cause Advocacy is poised to be another big winner if done right. The key will be having the swagger to get out front and truly lead in your advocacy efforts rather than hitching onto someone else’s train. The empathy factor will find you when you have the confidence to involve your customers in the shared passion you’re advocating for, and enabling them to find their own voice in the process. The outcome will be the kind of meaningful experience your brand needs to build on.

How can you find your swagathy today?

First look to Oprah, Apple, Laser Kitty or Southwest Airlines for inspiration. They have swagathy for days! Then separate the two parts of swagger and empathy and consider each on its own. Today your brand may be performing well on one but not the other, so start there. But DO NOT forget the other half. I guarantee there’s more you could be doing.

How can your brand have more swagger? More of that charismatic magnetism that will get you noticed by the people you seek. And how can your brand experience demonstrate true empathy? How can you do a better job of making your customers feel understood?

Then look for mashup opportunities. Branded content that’s well produced with a voice that shows you understand your audience. Retail experiences like the VR headset in the Tom’s flagship store that allows you to tour the village your purchase might support, or the climbing wall in REI that blurs the line between shopping and doing what you love. From there, it’s time to play the budget prioritization game, moving those items that score highly on both factors to the top of the list. Simple enough, right?