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January 16, 2018

The Alpha Brand

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Written by: Brian Hemsworth
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Why some businesses are destined to be market leaders.

HP, Dell, and Lenovo make great computers.

But Apple is a great brand. Adidas and Converse are excellent shoes. But Nike just does it.

BMW and Toyota make amazing hybrid cards. But Tesla? Well, they’re Tesla.

Some brands seem to be born leaders. Forged in the fires of competitive marketplaces, they find a way to rise above the competition. They grow fast. They become more profitable, more quickly.

But possibly the most powerful asset they develop is the intangible. They have “it.” The right stuff. Marketing mojo. Southwest. Amazon. Fitbit. Chipotle. GoPro. Starbucks. However, the list is not endless. In fact, it’s very limited. These are these brands “Alpha Brands.” Like the Alpha Dog, they are leaders of the pack. The may be bigger, or not. They may be tougher, or not. But one thing is undeniable—they are recognized by all as leaders.

And lead, they do. They lead in style and substance. What they do is not always successful, but it is always substantial. And significant.

Read the article about The Alpha Brand in the Latest Issue

Walmart is a market leader because they sell more. But they don’t have “it.” Toyota is a powerful brand, but not an inspirational brand. Jet Blue is innovative, but not a major force in its industry.

What makes an alpha brand standout, not just as successful but as an icon? What makes us go from liking or wanting their products to intense desire, respect, and admiration? What makes people “disciples” or even evangelists of Alpha Brands?

This was the basis for a meta research project I embarked upon with an elite group of graduate and undergraduate students at Pepperdine University. Thus began our search to decipher the Alpha Brand code.


We’ve all heard of the Alpha Male. It comes from studies of wolves, originally by Rudolph Schenkel in the 1940s. It was then greatly updated and expanded with a book called The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species by David Mech.

The actual theories have migrated away from the aggressive dominance of these wolves into more of “leader couples” that procreate new packs of offspring. The concept of “alpha” has since taken on an identity of its own in modern business.

Today we think of Alpha Brands as companies, brands of products that are leaders. They are not just leaders but they are powerful leaders, leaders with distinct points of view, with the power to stand up to others, and with an unrelenting sense that leadership is in their brand DNA. Our studies have indicated these brands share key traits, traits that become almost synonymous with their markets, or certainly innovation in their markets. They command respect, market position, and excessive brand value far beyond competitors.

Armed with an understanding of these traits, we set about to find what actions caused them to emerge. Our goal was to final causal relationships—things that these brands did that caused them to be who they are.

The result is a list of nine different business practices and attitudes that are found in all of our Alpha Brand examples. Remember that some companies may in fact be larger. Others may command great marketshare, mindshare, or brand equity. But Alpha Brands seem to transcend simple financial success, and they win over the hearts and minds of customers.

Here’s a rundown of the traits our findings revealed about Alpha Brands.


Clearly this is a dominant trait. Alpha Brands appear to gain large and rapid followings as a direct result of innovation. As an example, this is the hallmark of Apple. Their products are cool, hip, problem solving, and innovative. While some will argue who the inventors of products actually were, the collective consumer mindset sees Apple as the innovator of the GUI (graphic users interface) personal computer, the iPod (and MP3 players), the iPad (and media-based tablets), and the iPhone (smartphones in general).


It takes guts, but it pays to take the risk and be different. CNN changed television and news forever with the 24-hour news channel. Prior to CNN, news was only found a certain hours on television, or in a pinch, “news breaks” when things when there was breaking news to be found. But CNN opted to be different. Many thought they couldn’t fill the 24 hours and that viewers would tire.

Rapid Rise To A Leadership Position

Fitbit enjoys one of the rare-air branding perks of being a product that has become a common term. Just as Kleenex is often used as a term for facial tissue, Fitbit leaped on the scene shortly after the great recession, and emerged as a cool tech/fitness device. The company has had operation and financial issues, but less than a decade later, it is still synonymous with fitness tracking.

Response to Hidden Customer Wants/Needs

Listening to demands of a customer or client is key to building a better mousetrap. For decade upon decade, sports fans devoured the sports pages of newspapers. As television moved into media dominance, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network emerged as a sports-lovers dream channel. Whereas newscasts only devoted only a small percentage to sports scores, and newspapers and magazines offered deeper though less timely sports coverage, ESPN was the fix sports addicts secretly hungered for. ESPN recognized a deep desire and fulfilled it with what is still to this day, some 30 years later, a market leading media property.

Fearless Perseverance

Sticking to what you passionate about is critical to becoming an Alpha Brand. I remember attending a tradeshow where the fledgling company GoPro was giving away free cameras. They looked like little toys, and people literally handed them back when they got them. Little did they (and me) know what was to come. These little cameras were revolutionary. They were easy to use, durable as heck, and launched a whole new category of photo product. GoPro has not sat back on its laurels. It has in fact continued to lead and dominate the action camera market, despite the entry of from large companies like Sony, Garmin and Polaroid.

Profound Belief In The Concept

Much has been written about Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, creators of Nike. But unless you have read about their early history, you might not realize that they started business as Blue Ribbon Sports. They operated that way for years before parting ways with their major supplier. Renamed as Nike, their first ad campaign, “There is no finish line,” launched the brand into a new direction. Rather than rely on features and specifications of shoes, Nike embarked on created a brand attitude. This morphed into “Just Do It” a few years later, and the rest is truly brand history. Phil and Bill brought intimate market knowledge to their brand and let that emerge as a primary force for selling the product.

Clear Understanding of What Their Customers Value

As airlines fought to provide new services, including many tied to upper class service and new large-scale aircraft like the Boeing 747, Southwest Airlines bucked the trends. By researching, studying, and testing new services (or lack of) Southwest realized that their customers wanted cheap flights, lots of them, and would give up assigned seats, meals, and priority boarding to get what they wanted. It was only by knowing this that Southwest was able to innovate and dominate the short haul air business.

Accept Risk (Fight)

Steve Ells worked in food, and witnessed the rise in popularity of taquerías and mission-style (oversized) burritos, but a burrito-focused restaurant was an iffy proposition at best. Launched with a loan from his father, Ells figured he needed to sell about 100 burritos a day at his restaurant Chipotle. While not impossible, this was in the face of competition around literally every corner. By his second month, he was selling more than 1,000 burritos a day. Growth was rapid and soon he was seen as a challenge to major chains. But thanks to the innovative assembly line, a huge following among college students and millennials, not to mention an influx of investment from McDonald’s, Ells beat the odds, and the competition, to brand leadership.

Clear Understanding of Market Positions

A century ago, furniture was an investment. Craftsman built tables and chairs and sofas, many of which are still around today. By mid-last century, economy versions were appearing. Ikea, a Swedish startup in the 1940s, wove its way into a unique niche. They created furniture with modern Scandinavian design, easily transported and assembled, and affordable. With this unique positioning and product offering, Ikea was able to avoid head-to-head competition in many furniture niches, and found this unique brand was easily exported to other companies. They still operate on basically the same concept with more than 400 stores in more than 40 countries, selling nearly $40 billion a year. •

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About the Author

Brian Hemsworth
Brian Hemsworth is the president of Newman Grace Inc., a Los Angeles-based marketing and brand consulting firm. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty of Pepperdine University, and has published more than 100 articles on business, marketing, technology, travel and fitness. Visit Newman Grace Inc. or to learn more about Brian and his professional services. Read more about Brian Hemsworth...


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