This is a report on the state of how we market, communicate and brand our products.
It’s a dissection of the trappings of modern marketing channels, and an observation about how we lose our soul to them…and then how to win it back.
It’s a voicing of the truth of why certain brands, stories, and people spread through the market and have the wind at their backs, whereas others struggle, shout, and fall victim to the ocean of information being shared every day.
My intention is to help guide you back to a more permanent wellspring for building a meaningful brand.
To not add more to your pack, weighing you down, but instead lighten the load by helping you see what you already have, and how you can take that and use it to get to where you want to go.
I’m hoping to help you see, clearly for the first time a glaring problem (and opportunity) which we have overlooked.
I do this because at this point in our culture, we overwhelmingly only are given a one-directional way of doing things.
But what we’re not told, and what is never discussed as a viable option is…
You having everything you need, yourself.
This misperception, from my perspective, is a great tragedy.
So I will tell you right now, and again throughout this piece, what someone, be it a parent, mentor or coach has never told you…
You have everything you need to find success, yourself.
It has, in very fact, been the listening to the voices of others as your own, the trying and comparison, the seeking of models to follow…which is precisely what has kept you from making the impact that you truly want to make.
It is ironic, that despite the overwhelming documentation of our greatest leaders and heroes in business, athletics, art, and music, we fail to see the one thing that they all had in common…
They all forged their own path.
It’s precisely the people who invent their own template that we look up to.
Yet, even knowing this, we feel that we should do the opposite?
We do this because it feels safe and because we believe that if we follow a template and it doesn’t work out, it’s not us who is to blame, but the template...
And so we switch from recipe to recipe, hoping that the next one will get us somewhere, but it rarely, if ever, does.
And, in this ocean of information, it has become even more difficult to find clarity of our own voice.
It is difficult to find the silence necessary to hear ourselves over the din of social media distractions, advice and comparison.
And, it’s my assertion that precisely because we miss our own voice, we miss our greatest source of inspiration, insight, and effectiveness.
This is a letter about YOU, and your decisions, leadership, and opportunity.
This is a letter about seeing how we no longer need the hacks, fixes, and templates to use as a map for where to go next.
This is about discovering ourselves through the noise, so that we may discover the great work of our lives.
This is about a new way of marketing, one which puts your leadership and unique insight, right at the center.
Because we need YOU to show up.
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, my life was that of a typical midwestern rustbelt kid.
That was until a desktop computer showed up in my bedroom.
Now you’ve probably heard this story before, where someone talks about how this leads them to learn to hack on HTML, use chat rooms or start a business building websites…?
I did none of that.
Instead, I immersed in the internet of Brands, Fashion and Culture.
I spent my days surfing Tumblr, fashion blogs like Hypebeast and the Sartorialist, music blogs, early content and commerce companies; devouring the culture that I so desperately wished I had where I lived.
Online everything was so vivid, and the culture so complex and interesting.
I knew the names of people who no one my age or in my city would know or care about; like founders of iconic brands and writers of fashion columns.
I was obsessed with this question:
“What is it that leads someone to develop a deep affinity for a brand?”
Why is it that some companies develop cult-like followings?
What leads someone to cherish their NorthFace backpack, wait in line for Supreme, or get an Apple Tattoo on their forearm?
After exploring this question for years, I have found what I believe is the root cause of this phenomenon.
What is it that I have learned?
I’ll get to that in a moment…
Years later, after my college years working with companies and developing my eye, studying this, I struck out to build my own brand.
I remember walking into the meeting with the full creative team of a popular ice-cream brand.
It wasn’t just the CEO who was called in… it was 4 of the team’s leadership to hear my pitch!
Totally nervous, shaky, I struggled to get my pitch out.
My premise was this: Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest were all rising social media platforms that I thought brands should build an audience on.
Because of that, I felt that there was about to be a huge need for a large quantity of high-quality photo media to use in those channels.
And how would their brand be able to cover that need?
I believed that I could pitch myself as a photographer who could be in charge of that for their brand.
I had planned this whole road trip concept where I would tour to their different shops across the country and meet with their customers…take photos, and…
I didn’t hear back.
Well, I got a note about how they would get back to me, which I then never heard back from.
And this happened again and again. With company after company.
Defeated, I remember laying in my bed and just thinking to myself that I would have to do something else.
I took the day, er month, regrouping and licking my wounds.
What formulated during that period of struggle was the idea that I had been waiting for someone else to say “yes” to me.
I had an idea, but I didn’t think it would happen unless someone else gave me the green light, either mentally or monetarily.
So I switched up the approach and teamed up with my designer/photographer friend Allie Lehman.
If these companies were going to have a need for beautiful images for social… Well, so did our freelancer friends, designers, bloggers and developers.
We decided to create images that anyone of these people could use today in their projects. We called it Death to the Stock Photo: Anyone could sign up and get quality images sent to them by email.
Without fail, we dropped new “photo packs” (sets of images based on a story or theme) into people’s inboxes every month. We shared stories about what we were up to, who we were working with, and just general thoughts around the creative process.
Within 6 months, we had built a sizable audience of about 10,000 people receiving our newsletter…
We had teamed up with other artists like Brandon Rike to collaborate with on the design of our logo.
Without a budget for models, Allie and I took turns being in the photos.
We launched a premium stock media subscription service, for only $5/month mind you, and immediately had almost 500 people sign up.
Soon we had over 100,000 people on our list.
Soon we fully crowd-funded a 5-city road trip from our audience, where people backed our travel in exchange from digital images from the road. In a fun twist of fate, this concept was the exact type of trip I had pitched brands, however now it was on our own terms with our own audience.
Eventually went on to grow to an audience of over 500,000+.
It’s this point that people scratch the record and ask.. “WAIT, how did you grow so quickly?”
Before I dive into “what” we did, I want to give you some context about how I think about community and audience building, let me explain my theory on the “Three Community Circles.”
90% of your audience only cares about your communications, and therefore your story and belief system.
Death to Stock is about breaking the status-quo, and for those that believed in our message opted in because they shared this worldview.
The Brand was positioned with that idea in mind and was aptly named to illustrate it.
Our conversations with our audience were about breaking the mold, standing out, and letting your “freak flag fly.”
We simply really cared about what we said because we knew that for most of the people who follow us on Instagram, email, Twitter… all they cared about was what we represented, to them.
In the normal distribution of any brand, there is a much larger audience paying in attention than paying in money.
(There’s one more step which is better than Attention and Money, but we’ll get to that)
However, because we knew that 90% of people we interact with are here, we spent a huge deal of effort in this area.
Yet most brands flip this equation. Content is an afterthought, ditto for story… Because it’s all about Product… right?
Tell that to Gillette when they hear about Dollar Shave Club…
90% of those who spread the word and follow you will not be customers, at least not right away.
A smaller percentage, maybe 5% of those paying attention, will buy from you because of the UTILITY that you provide them.
These buyers believe in what you believe. But then they go a step further…
They believe it so much that they want to embody what you speak about, so they buy your product because it helps them do just that.
This is where your product comes in, and it’s the second most important step someone can take with your brand.
To me, a brand is a series of promises you make to your customers.
When you overdeliver on these promises, customers go farther on a mutually beneficial journey with you.
First, you overdeliver by aligning with their beliefs, and you communicate and lead them in this way effectively (this is attention building).
Then you sell your product which empowers them to enact these beliefs (utility).
For the 1%, they want to connect with you, or they want to connect with others like them.
They want to hear what you believe — and so they subscribe to your communication.
They believe in it so much that they want to embody it through your product ––and so they buy from you.
And last, they want to connect–– they want to be around like-minded people which your brand has surfaced naturally through its efforts.
Your communications, product, and community are a filter for a certain type of person that they can’t unite with anywhere else.
Being in your community is the deepest form of engagement someone can give you.
To want to connect with you… to show up to your events… to meet and hang out with other members of your community, to shut down trolls on your behalf, or like Airbnb, to volunteer to lobby the local government for their right to exist…
This is the holy grail for Brands. “Activated” audience members who spread the word for you, consume your media, recruit and help support the infrastructure of your community.
Being that I pointed out how important that first step is (the 90%) and how most brands do the opposite (spending 10% of time there), I wanted to further explain:
“What do you mean stories and communication?
We all know that word of mouth is the best way to market a product… right?
Well if we know that, then why do we spend so much time speaking at our audience, instead of giving them something to talk about?
To lead a movement you go bottom up, not top down. Your brand is a signal, the unifying factor for an audience.
And with that signal, you need a frequency of spreading stories that grow the community and move it forward.
The way a consumer perceives your brand is of utmost importance. This is not just slick design and it is not just the product.
It is the signals you send, partly through design, and partly through the product. But just product and design is not enough.
Good design, especially, in the DTC world has become more ubiquitous and therefore has further become commoditized in building a brand that breaks through.
Eternal storytelling that lasts is still rare.
If you don’t believe me, just think about… Nike, Apple… VW…Their brand truth runs so deep, and is so authentic, and has been told through so many beautiful stories… that it is an irresistible movement, with a wide moat.
We don’t care about shoes. We care about the story of who we can become if we have their shoes.
We care about the people we connect with because of the shoes. We want to believe we are someone who can “just do it.”
What Nike is doing is contributing a message and having a conversation that wasn’t being had before their existence.
Thank you, Nike, for the ongoing inspiration!
–– If you’re looking for another smaller brand who does this well, see– Cards Against Humanity, which routinely sells out and has a true cult-like following. ––
Don’t believe me about this 90% thing?
We did a survey (with over 10,000 responses) about *Why* someone was on our email list?
Almost 50% of people (!) replied that they weren’t subscribed for our photo download content.
They were just their for what we had to say.
Death to Stock was born out of struggle.
This struggle was flipped upside down and became about generosity.
We were helping people with open hearts/minds and connecting with them as much as we could.
Not to sell our product, not to pitch our service, but instead, to support them, no lead them forward, to a place that they already wanted to go.
We were standing up first so that our audience could stand up, too.
It turns out that the most successful marketing has no angle.
So how did we begin to build from nothing into a strong foundational story which thousands were subscribing to?
1. Was Generous — Was done for them, not for us.
2. Delighted our Audience (was playful or fun.)–– Didn’t take ourselves too seriously, but also touched on an honest message or topic.
3. Shared our Brand Values –– The story or concept embodied our brand and message, in its own unique way.
We ran dozens of campaigns with this in mind. And to be honest, this was a constant, not just in large campaigns but in small interactions in person and online.
Here are just 7 examples …
(If you’d like 20 more examples of ideas we tried, click here)
The Mystery USB — We got in touch with 15 of our favorite artists and asked them to contribute something to a “Mystery USB” which was a thumb drive that would help you in case of a creative emergency. Customers bought this without knowing a single thing that was on it, and could only see once they plugged it in at home.
Logo in a Day — Most people spend a lot of time thinking about their logo and branding system. We wondered… what if you just put pure effort heart and quick decision making to do it in 24 hours? We hired our friend Brandon to design, filmed him in the process… and 24 hours later we were re-branded (happily I might add!)
The Nonprofit Giveaway — Nonprofits have a hard time creating quality images for their website, social and marketing materials. They’re underserved, and we wanted to say “I see you” by donating a free photo shoot to a non-profit in need. We opened it up for submissions, and asked our audience “Which non-profit deserves a free photo shoot?” And got over 2,500 submissions. (We later shared the images from that shoot with our audience).
Explain DTS at a party. — We were curious how someone would explain what the heck we do to someone else… so we simply asked, “How would you explain DTS at a Party?” What we didn’t expect was to get this video from Edgar, who is a gas station attendant in upstate Minnesota.
Giving you Flowers. — One time we messed up, so we sent everyone virtual flowers as an apology.
Just Breathe — My girlfriend and I decided to travel to Big Sur during the election (we wanted to be away from it all). But tensions were still high, especially the day after the election. So I took a shitty iPhone video of waves (linked above) as I was looking at on the beautiful coast of California, uploaded to our email list and sent it out to over 300,000 people with a note that basically just said, “Whatever side you’re on, just Take a Deep Breath.” – With this example, we see that flash, investment have less to do with it than timing, perspective and the right message at the right time.
The “Way Out There” campaign — We wanted to know… “Who was the farthest, most remote person in our audience?” So we asked people to submit where they were located, and how they were living the non-stock lifestyle. The most “remote” person would get a care package airdropped to their location made by Death To Stock.
What happened next… shocked us.
The replies we got were from people in Ghana, Tunisia, Philippines, Russia, Scotland, a sailboat from the Mediterranean, Patagonia, and places all over the world with stories that touched our hearts.
People telling us that they were the only person in their village with a camera. People telling us that they only got internet every 3 days. People telling us that they had been sailing around the globe but still enjoy getting our emails.
We learned an extraordinary lesson through this campaign, that not only was our audience global… but the people we impact MOST are those with the LEAST resources.
The disconnected need the most connection. And that people valued our communication…
I remember crying (happy) tears reading these responses. To me, it was the highlight of what we’d done as a brand.
These were stories that impacted people, there was depth here.
And they were only available in this unique corner of the internet.
So what was our approach? In short…
We tell stories, connect the disconnected, and create memorable experiences worth talking about.
At 23 I started a company and bootstrapped it to $1Million in revenue and a sizable audience.
3 years in, I was overwhelmed and creatively bankrupt.
All of this culminated with me getting Shingles, a stress-related virus that put me in bed for a month (in lots of pain, and lots to think about).
There are a whole host of mistakes I made in this period of time, but all of them went back to this:
Following the voice of others, instead of my own voice.
When you find some success…a flip happens.
You tend to try and hold onto it.
It's a subtle shift from proactive, to reactive.
In a way, I became aware of how much I didn’t know in business. In seeing that, I became fearful of trusting myself to take the next step forward into the unknown.
So I started asking other people for permission and advice. I started trusting myself less.
When you’re reactive, you can’t be generous.
When you’re reactive, you can’t take the leaps necessary to do something new, on behalf of serving an audience.
When you’re reactive, you try and make things “full-proof” and you seek the input of others, instead of confidently going your own way.
I tried to find the templates, I hired consultants… I thought I was out of my element, and in this, I gave up my power.
What I see now is a really simple concept, which has formed the foundation of the way that I help brands build their audience naturally.
YOU need to show up.
Here was my mistake:
I wasn’t the one showing up.
I was trying to use the ideas of other people, to show up (as them, not me).
So what is it that I learned about how “brands build magic?”
What is it that I learned about building an audience?
What is it that I learned about why it is that some stories create a magnetism while others work more for less impact?
What I learned is that Building an audience is a byproduct of a person or team becoming something. Because we all seek to become something (ourselves).
And so what an audience is attracted by, is what cannot be faked.
When I was fearful, when I was reactive, when I defaulted to the tactics and ideas of others… *I* wasn’t showing up.
I was inauthentic, untrue, and “trying” to be something I wasn’t.
Because I was doing what other people told me to do, I was getting less results with more effort.
Death to Stock is ultimately is a genuine expression of who we are.
We didn’t look for marketing “hacks.”
(Is it natural to try and “hack” how we build trust with people?)
We didn’t try to be something we were not.
(We didn’t pretend to be some giant tech company ‘crushing it.’)
We didn’t try and con our users into buying.
(We were offering something that they could buy into, an opportunity, but not one they needed to take for us to value them).
We were exploring our edge and helping other’s explore theirs, too.
Like I said, the best marketing has no angle.
When someone sees you becoming something they want to be, they are inspired to grow, themselves.
And your content, your product, and your community are how they do that.
We didn’t need funnels, PPC, or any systematic marketing hack. We barely even really tracked anything.
I’m not saying any of those things are bad. They’re not.
It’s just that they are tools and not the foundation.
We can use them, if we’d like, and if they serve us.
But they are not “the thing.”
To think that “they” are the thing is to miss the point, miss the depth, and work harder, for longer, with less results.
The foundation of marketing is YOU showing up.
It’s the sincere desire of a team of people to make an impact which is reflected in all of the actions that they take.
YOU are the magic that cannot be copied, that deliver results for your company, and make an impact with an audience.
Our exploration lead to insight, and sharing that insight lead an audience who wanted to follow along.
And so building an audience and brand is about a mutually beneficial relationship between you and the audience.
If so you’re lying about who you are, if you’re hiding your best self, if you have an angle going in about what you will “get” from others…?
It will be picked up, and you will be ignored.
We need leaders who are confident to go against the grain and stand up for their audiences.
If you are following others, following the status quo, or following what you “should” do you will miss out on this fundamentally beautiful relationship that is possible to build.
We don’t need more leaders to use more funnel hacking and growth strategies for short term gains.
We need YOU. And we need YOU to forge your own path.
There are thousands of podcasts and posts about the steps to wealth, or the steps to starting a business.
We should learn to integrate their messages without letting them be the map we follow.
So here is what I learned about Marketing, Audience Building and Brands that Create Magic.
Doing things that you “should do” because they are “the right way” creates fear. It makes you reactive. In being reactive you can’t be generous. In doing what others say you should do, you don’t create your own path.
And all of those lead to the byproduct of working harder for fewer results as you continue on in frustration switching from tactic to tactic, recipe to recipe.
They’re one sliver of the true output… rather than the source which creates the output, which is YOU.
People who continually make magic happen in art or business have found a source to pull from that is opaque to the outside world and then disguised as tactics which are faintly retold, years later.
The leaders we follow provide us with incredibly valuable feelings, not information.
We internalize and are attracted by their worldview.
But then we mistakenly see the tactics that they leave behind as the method, when it is the byproduct of the method.
So as we study this output (a campaign, an idea, a story), what we should be really searching for is the source of the output.
To do this we must go deeper, and we must go our own way.
So how do you build a brand that meaningfully impacts an audience? How do you create something that’s magic for it’s customers and community?
You create space for yourself to stand out from the crowd by naturally being yourself without the cover-up.
When we ask about what actions we can take… we should really be asking…
“Who should I become?”
And instead of asking for recipes from others about what to do next…
“We should ask, what is my recipe?”
For the past 6 years, I created at Death to Stock. We are a fully bootstrapped, remote company, used by brands like Twitter, Visa, Xero and TED.
If you are a independent entrepreneur who became successful by not fitting in, and who wants to understand why things are stuck, get in touch.
Learn More: Building around Who You Are Generously Human.