Do You Know Your Brand Down To Its Core?


What's your brand core? Mother, mechanic, or missionary?

Branding can often feel like chasing a ghost. There’s so much out there it can sometimes feel impossible to reach your audience, whether it’s as an individual or as a company. The key to creating a lasting and unique voice for you, a product, or a concept, you have to understand your mission’s very DNA.

Andy Cunningham is the founder of Cunningham Collective, a marketing brand and communication strategy firm. She's played a role in the launch of many technology categories and products, including the Apple Macintosh. Her new book is Get to Aha: Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate Your Competition.

I recently interviewed Andy where she revealed how to know your brand inside and out. (The interview below is lightly edited for space and clarity.) 

Kevin Kruse: Will you tell us a story about a time when you failed at something?

Andy Cunningham: I think there's many to choose from, so I'll pick one sort of bad decision that I made, which I think led to a failure, and that is that after I was done doing the agency business for quite some time, I made the decision to go in-house and become the chief marketing officer at a company. I made a really bad decision about the company. It was a company that the product wasn’t what the CEO said it was and the engineering wasn’t what they said it was, so I went about trying to do my normal thing with positioning, marketing, and get people inspired about this. In the end, the product was just really bad and it was a very bad decision, and so, of course, everything that I did from a marketing perspective failed. That’s probably a whole collection of 10, 12 or 20 failures all in one big batch.

Kruse: Marketing can't save a bad product. Right?

Cunningham: So true. That’s a judgment call, right? When you're making a decision about who to represent, whether you're an agency or if you're a person going to work for a company, you really need to make sure the product is what you think it is.

Kruse: What advice would you give to a young professional?

Cunningham: I think if you're young, if you're in your 20s, that’s really young to me now, the best thing to do is to try to work for some companies that other people have heard of, whether you're doing it on an agency front or whether you're doing it as an employee at a company, because it won't be the job that you have forever. You're only going to probably do that job for a couple of years, and when you go to your next job, you're going to want the employer to say, “I've heard of that company. They did great things,” because you will then be tied to the great things that that company did, whether or not you had anything to do with it. For young people, that's super important.

Kruse: I know early in your career you worked on the launch of the Apple Macintosh. What was that like? 

Cunningham: Yes, I was very lucky to have had a very famous product to work for that turned out to be a successful product. It was an amazing experience. Working with Steve Jobs was one of the most inspiring, challenging, but inspiring life-changing experiences that I've ever had. He taught me so much about marketing and about leadership and quality. It was an incredible experience. We're very lucky that the Macintosh succeeded, because the product they launched right before that, the Lisa, was a huge failure, which, fortunately, I did not have anything to do with.

Kruse: When people think of Steve Jobs they think ‘brilliant’ and ‘difficult.’ Do we have that right?

Cunningham: Well, I'd like to say two things about that. The first thing is when I was working with Steve Jobs, which was in the '80s, when the Macintosh was launched, he was not yet an experienced CEO or even really an experienced executive. He was a young guy, brash, with huge vision and a passion to change the world, but his leadership skills were really lacking. He was not very good at managing people or leading people.

What happened later on, after he got kicked out of Apple and then went and formed NeXT and had that experience, which ended up as a failure, he then came back to Apple a much wiser and much better leader. The people who worked with him after he came back to Apple have a very different perspective of Steve than those of us who worked with him in the early '80s. It's a far, I think, nicer view of him as a leader than he was when I worked with him early on.

He got so much better at leadership and management. I envy the people who had the opportunity to work with him later, because he was not only the great visionary and great marketing expert that he was early on, but he was also a much better leader.

The second thing, I did want to say one more thing about Steve. His agenda in life was always very pure. It was really to change the world. He wasn’t about power, he wasn’t about money, and he wasn’t about women, which many, many of these CEOs are. That made working for him, even during his most difficult days, the most refreshing experience that you could possibly ever have and also inspiring, because he was just so pure about his agenda.

Kruse: What's the big idea behind your book?

Cunningham: It's a marketing book about a concept that was invented in the '70s called positioning. Positioning is the art and science of owning real estate in the mind of the potential customer. A book was written in the '70s called Positioning by Jack Trout and Al Ries. They did this book prior to the Internet. Life in that era was very different and doing positioning and doing marketing was very different. My book is what I kind of affectionately call Positioning 2.0, and it takes into consideration all that has occurred between the '70s and now on the concept of positioning in marketing. That’s the big idea.

Kruse: You say companies can be ‘Mothers’ which are relationship-driven, ‘Mechanics’ are product-driven, and ‘Missionaries’ are concept-driven. Can you give us examples?

Cunningham: Sure. I think a good example of some mother companies, Lyft is a wonderful example. You can kind of just feel it when you see their marketing materials or get in one of their cars. Nordstrom is another great example of a mother company. On the mechanic side, Oracle and Microsoft, typical great examples of companies that are really focused on product and building a great product around features and all the great things that you can do with product. The missionaries, FedEx is a great example. FedEx, Apple, Tesla, these companies exist to fundamentally change human behavior at some level. When they succeed, that’s when I give them the moniker of being a missionary. That’s what Steve Jobs was and that’s what Apple was when I worked with them.

Kruse: Just because you're product-obsessed company doesn’t necessarily make you a ‘mechanic,’ right?

Cunningham: Right. By the way, they appear to be product-obsessed, but they're not always. When we launched the Macintosh, it didn’t have cursor keys, couldn’t print anything, didn’t have a network. It wasn't really product-obsessed. Yes, it was a beautiful piece of furniture to put on your desk and it worked in a different way. It had a graphical user interface, but it was not what I would call a product-obsessed company at that stage of the game.

Really what Steve was trying to do was change behavior, change computing behavior. He wanted people to feel about their computer like you would about an affectionate friendship that you might have. He wanted you to have a relationship with your computer. He wanted to change how you would actually interact with your computer. He did that in part through the product, through the graphical user interface and the size and all that, but he also did it with many, many other mechanisms that he put to use.

Kruse: Was that unique to Apple at the time or would you say that Elon Musk wants us to change our relationship with our automobiles?

Cunningham: Well, I think Elon Musk has a different approach to it, and any time he says anything and it makes it into the news, it's not about cars. It's hardly ever about cars. What it's about is about changing the way people transport themselves from one place to another. He spends all of his time in what I would call the ‘thought leadership realm,’ about the future of transportation. That’s how he does it.

Now Steve did it more or less about how he was going to change the way people relate to their computers, but Elon Musk does it around talking about how we're going to change how we move ourselves from one place to another, whether it's earth to Mars or whether it's just simply from here to Los Angeles.

Kruse: In your book, you also give the six Cs. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Cunningham: Sure. There are these six Cs, and I'll just quickly say what they are. The first one is ‘core,’ and that’s your DNA, so you need to understand are you a mother, a mechanic, or a missionary. Then there is ‘community,’ which is the customers you're selling to and the people who influence that community, so you have to understand them. Then there is ‘competition.’ Of course, you have to understand how your competition is positioning themselves. There is also ‘context,’ which is what is going on in the world around you, in order to understand what's happening so that you don't position yourself as something that’s outdated or no longer important.

‘Criteria’ is another C, which is figuring out exactly what you want that statement to say about yourself so that when you come up with your positioning statement in the end, you get it right.

Finally, ‘category.’ Category is an important question these days, especially in the tech industry. Are you building a new category? Are you augmenting an old category? Are you going to be adding to a category that already exists?

Those are all the questions that you really need to fully examine before you come up with your positioning statement in the end.

Kruse: Is that a sign of doing positioning right if you're the only one that does what you do? Or do you not have to be that extreme about identifying your position?

Cunningham: I think if you have an ‘onlyness’ statement, and, by the way, I think that’s one of Simon Sinek's tenets of good marketing, is what is your ‘onlyness’ statement? What do you do only that other people don’t do? It's important to understand what that is. Not every company has an ‘onlyness,’ at least from a product perspective. Sometimes the ‘onlyness’ has to do with other things like the customer set that you're going after or the features that you offer on that product or the value that you deliver in the end. I think there are many ways to attack the positioning, but if you have an ‘onlyness’ statement, you should use it.

Kruse: What's a good starting point for taking your work and applying it to personal branding for individuals?

Cunningham: Well, I think the first thing is just what I would tell a company, which is understand whether you are a product-oriented person, a customer-oriented person, or a concept-oriented person. Then put yourself in a situation with a company that is aligned with that particular type of DNA, because if you are a product person and you really care about nothing more than product and you go work for a company that is trying to build incredible relationships with customers, it's going to be a little bit of an issue. You might find a great role in the engineering department if you happen to be an engineer, but if you're not an engineer, it could create a misalignment between your objectives with your career and the objectives of the company. I'm all for aligning who you are as a person with the type of company you choose to work for.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.


CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at