The fatal flaw of trend-based brands

If you’re a founder, you probably got into the game partly through a desire for freedom.  Being your own boss and all that good stuff.

Central to this desire is a yearning for control.  To be in control not only of your time, but of your destiny.  To incubate yourself from the arbitrary whims of some random idiot.  Sure, even as a founder, you’re never going to totally avoid this issue.  There will always be some gatekeeper (investor, buyer, etc.) getting in your way.  But in the big picture at least, you’re in charge.  It’s you, and you alone, who are responsible for your success or failure.

Bearing this in mind then, I find it baffling just how many founders adopt strategies which chuck this hard-earned freedom straight out the window.

Rather than controlling their brand’s trajectory through the market – for better or worse – they adopt a strategy which is fundamentally passive, and leaves their fate totally to chance.

Sound like a bad idea?  It is, but it’s also super common, and it all comes down to this:

Aligning your success to a trend.

Many brands – especially in FMCG – come into being because their founder noticed growing product or lifestyle trend.  Plant-based, fermentation, plastic-free, nootropics, CBD, you know the kind of thing, the list is endless.  On seeing this, they think (quite logically) “if I get in early here then I’ll be able to ride the growth of this category straight to the top”.  So that’s just what they do: make a brand in the growing space, sit back, and wait.

Seems like a good idea, but with one tiny flaw: what do you do if the anticipated growth tsunami never comes?

Passive strategies like this, where brands wait to profit from a growing trend, are suicidal.  The problem is that only a tiny fraction of trends ever breakthrough into becoming mainstream concepts.  Industries which are experiencing “triple digit growth” are normally doing so simply because they only have triple digits of customers.  And the qualities which help an idea get traction with early adopters are often hinderances when it comes to wider traction.  (In other words something becoming popular in Planet Organic ironically makes it less likely to succeed in Tesco, not more).

These quirky paradoxes seduce founders into gambling on ideas that are never going to make it – and furnish brands which die slow painful deaths as they wait years for the tide which never comes in.

Now, I need to pause here and make an important qualification, because I know that many of my readers run brands just like this, and the last thing I want to do is dunk on their ideas.

I am not saying that all brands who are tapping into a new trend are doomed.  On the contrary tapping into such trends is great.  I am simply saying that the ones who adopt a passive “wait for the trend to get big” strategy are doomed.  And unfortunately that’s most of them.

Creating a brand in a growing or nascent market is great provided you make sure you do so in a manner whereby you maintain control of your destiny, rather than leaving it to chance.


It’s simple: you must develop a strategy which assumes your category will never take off.

You must build your brand as if the wider trend was a total dud, that will be forgotten in 5 years.

You see all these trend-based products have two sides to them.  One side, the obvious and passive one, is the side which is tied to the wider concept.  Will this “thing” ever take off?  Will it become a mainstream concern?  The answer to this is generally “no”.  The other side however has more potential: what is this thing in and of itself?  What does it do, objectively, for consumers?  How can we sell it from first principles, to someone who’s never heard of it?  You see there’s a massive difference between selling a product off the back of a trend, and selling it on its own merits.

Let’s say you have, I don’t know, a CBD chocolate company.  (I’m sure thousands of these exist already).  On the one hand you can try to sell this on the back of the wider CBD trend: the more popular CBD becomes, the more popular your chocolate becomes.  That’s the bad strategy.  On the other hand you could ask “what if we were the only CBD product in the world?  What if we’d literally invented CBD, and put it in a chocolate?  How would we sell it then?  How would we sell it without leaning on the reputation of the category?”.  This is the thinking that will unlock a good strategy.

Pretending that you invented the trend, and selling it from first principles like this has double benefit.  First you have a strategy which is separate from the fate of the category, and which you control.  And second, if the category does take off in its own right, you will still be able to profit from it anyway – even more so in fact because you will have a differentiated position from all the other passive brands.

Ultimately my general position has always been that the world and the markets within it change far less than we think they do.  Walk around any supermarket and in truth it’s 95% the same as it was in 1992.  The fact that we all came of age in a period of flux as the world adjusted to the internet has tricked us into thinking that change is the natural order of things, but from a business point of view it isn’t – stasis is.

So please, don’t tie your fate to macro changes that may never happen.  Make a company that is fit for the world as it is today.  Because more than likely, that’s what will be fit for the world tomorrow too.

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