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Patrick Hanlon: Primal Branding Author

Did you know there’s a modern method for successfully building authentic brand narratives — and it’s actually been around for tens of thousands of years? In this Art of Sway episode, we chatted with author Patrick Hanlon to learn tips from his iconic book Primal Branding, which has become required reading at YouTube.

Patrick Hanlon is the author of Primal Branding, the seminal book that uncovers the root code for building authentic brands. As CEO and founder of, Hanlon works with clients like Google, Levi’s, Microsoft, PayPal, PepsiCo, VW, Craft, Shopify, Time Warner, Upworthy, United Nations, and others.

Don’t miss this great discussion centered around branding, including:

  • How brands can share their ‘primal code’ in a bottom-up narrative that urges word of mouth
  • What happens when you look at brands as belief systems — and further deconstruct those belief systems into seven key passion points
  • Why ancient patterns of community building are relevant for today’s brands
  • What happens when brands break away from old-school messaging strategies
  • The biggest conceit in marketing, and why simply acknowledging it can make all the difference for marketers

Episode 23: Patrick Hanlon Transcript

Danielle Wiley: Welcome to The Art of Sway. This is a podcast that brings you inside the world of marketing through the lens of influence. I’m your host, Danielle Wiley. Each week through candid conversations with industry insiders, we will uncover how influencer marketing is making an impact across all consumer buying habits and is changing the way we talk to each other. Let’s dive in.

Danielle Wiley: Patrick Hanlon is the author of Primal Branding, the seminal book that uncovers the root code for building authentic brands. Primal Branding is required reading at YouTube. As CEO, founder of Hanlon works with billion dollar brands and those who want to become billion dollar brands. Clients have included Google, Levi’s, Microsoft, PayPal, PepsiCo, VW, Craft, Shopify, Time Warner, Upworthy, United Nations, and others.

Danielle Wiley: Hanlon has spoken at NYU, Fit, Ideo, H&P innovation series and holds events both virtually and in real life in China, Europe, South Africa, Argentina, Columbia, and elsewhere. In another life, Hanlon wrote Super Bowl and other commercials for brands, famous and infamous. Patrick is a true veteran of the advertising world. I really enjoyed chatting with him about a concept he created called Primal Branding. We touch on all the ways that brands influence or attempt to influence consumers. Please enjoy. Thank you for coming. It’s great to have you on, and I’m so glad that our mutual buddy Lynn introduced us. She’s awesome.

Patrick Hanlon: She’s great. I’m happy to be here. It’s always fun to meet new people, new audiences.

Danielle Wiley: Well, yeah, like I said, let’s start with the easy stuff. It would be great to hear just kind of a synopsis of your journey, how you got to where you are today. I saw in your bio you said you’re the Charles Darwin of branding, so how does that happen?

Patrick Hanlon: Yeah, someone called me that, I think. I was born in Oceanside, California. I left home when I was about 15. I went back to go to finish off school. It took me, I don’t know, 20 years or something to get through college, was a writer in advertising and a creative director, and I happened to fall into a problem that a client was having and at that time, people were talking about Nike Tribes in the Apple Cult and stuff like that, but no one really understood how to make that happen for themselves other than by imitating Nike and Apple. We still have to this day Gatorade commercials that look like they’re 1990s Nike commercials. So.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah, I was going to say, I don’t know that, I mean, I still see everyone trying to be like Apple or Nike. They all need your book.

Patrick Hanlon: And so I had some time to figure it out, and I did. And so now my book, Primal Branding is what it’s called is required reading at YouTube, and that is to say when corporations or celebrities come in and they want to get a billion views and ask, how do they do that? They hand over my book. Apparently they went through a process of trying to figure out if there are any similarities and all of the blockbuster videos with billions of views and the similarities, whether it be found in my book, and so it is required reading there. But on our own, we’ve worked with billion dollar companies, billion dollar brands, and those who want to become billion dollar brands.

Danielle Wiley: So you encountered this client that was struggling and kind of wanting to be the next Apple or Nike. So talk a little bit more about what Primal Branding is and how this came about and how it solved that problem for them.

Patrick Hanlon: Yeah, this was well-documented, is well-documented, the client was Lego and at that time, and I was a global creative director on label one of several global creative directors, because I was a global creative director, I went to Billund, which is where the headquarters is. I went to London, which is where the European headquarters is. I was in New York, and then I went also to Carlsbad, which is where Legoland is. And so I got a wider perspective on Lego than I suppose a lot of people worked at Lego, right?

Patrick Hanlon: And I just felt in my gut that there was something really wrong going on. I couldn’t put my finger on it or articulate it even. But coincidentally, at the same time there, McKinsey consultant was looking at the books and he told the family, Lego’s family owned that if they kept on with what they were doing, they’d be out of business in two years.

Patrick Hanlon: And so that got their intention and he became CEO of Lego. And so what I was feeling from a, I guess a creative point of view, he was finding in the books, in the numbers and in the metrics. And so there you had it, the left brain, right brain. And so from that I just asked, but really that situation just forced me to ask myself, why do we really care or really believe and trust in some companies and not in others? So there are a hundred different kinds of jeans we can wear. There are a hundred different kinds of drinks.

Patrick Hanlon: There are over 300 kinds of car models to choose from. Why do we believe in certain ones and not in others? So I wondered if there was a pattern or asked what the similarities were. And they all have logos. I immediately thought of the Nike Swoosh and the Starbucks mermaid and Coca-Cola and so forth and Apple, and then they all have creation stories.

Patrick Hanlon: Apple was started in a garage, think of another, Google was started in a dorm room. Facebook started in a dorm room, Adam and Eve, of course. And I just started to build upon that until we had, not only where we started, but also what we believe in, whether it’s democracy, believe it, that all people are created equal. Whether we execute on that is a different question. But then how do we identify you. The rituals that we use, Starbucks, famously, we all had a stand in line for our coffee and then order with this strange language of ice grande, skinny decaf latte. So we all have lexicon, whether it’s just do it or think different or whatever, or iPads, i this, that and the other thing.

Patrick Hanlon: Then there’s a group of people that I call non-believers who are, it’s Mac versus PC. Vegans versus carnivores, gas guzzling SUVs versus Teslas and so forth. Not that they’re warring against each other, but actually figuring out who does not. The great conceit in marketing is that everyone’s going to want us because our product is so wonderful, but in fact, it’s never wonderful enough that everyone, absolutely, everyone wants to be with us. And so to acknowledge that there are people out there who don’t want to eat meat or don’t want gas guzzling SUVs opens up new markets.

Patrick Hanlon: So it’s really a terrific tool for strategically figuring out where your white space is. And then there’s a leader. And once you combine all seven of these, and it takes all seven of them to attract truly powerful brand communities, it breaks you away from the old hierarchical pyramid of telling people what to think or say about your products or services and/or yourself.

Patrick Hanlon: And really building a bottom up narrative that helps urge word of mouth. So that’s what Primal Branding is about. It’s about building communities. And so I started doing this in, I came up with that idea in 2001 in June, July, August. I bounced it off, some friends of mine, close friends, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself publicly, and they all thought there was something to it.

Patrick Hanlon: And in August, I just kind of laid low, made some appointments to go into Manhattan in September, and then 9/11 happened, and nobody really cared about a new branding idea. We had different things going on. So it was just a speech I had. So I would talk about it in front of people and say that your brand is a community and blah, blah, blah. And there would be hundreds of people staring back at me with Xs in their eyes.

Patrick Hanlon: So, it’s reassuring that today that’s become a cliche. But the breakout point was in, I had a speech, and someone came up to me afterwards and asked me if I knew who Rapi was, and I said, yes. And he said, I like his thing, and I like your thing. I’m going to put them together and make my own thing. And I told a friend of mine that, and he said, Pat, you have to write a book. And so after a while, a woman named Robin Waters, who was a design director at Target, she said, oh, I can get you an agent you can use. I’m writing a book. I have an agent. And so she introduced me to Jonathon Lazear, and Jonathan said, oh, this book will be easy to sell. And I laughed because I just spent two, three years, whatever, trying to do it. And of course, he got it done in about two weeks. And so thank you, Jonathan.

Danielle Wiley: It’s the beauty of an agent, right?

Patrick Hanlon: Yeah. Worked with an excellent editor at Simon & Schuster named Fred Hills. His other authors were Nabokov and Seth Godin, and went on from there.

Danielle Wiley: So one of the things, and we didn’t talk about this in our kind of our pre-conversation, but it’s something that is very interesting to me, and I’d love to get your perspective on it. So this whole idea, I’m fascinated with Gen Z, and I’m the parent of two, I was going to say kids, but one is an adult, so parent of two Gen Zers, and one of them was born right around the time you were coming up with this in 2001. So you had this whole idea before that generation was even talking, doing their thing. And now of course, they’re kind of grown and spending money and engaging with brands. And as you were describing the competitiveness and having the meat eaters, non meat eaters, I was thinking of my son who is, so, he’s very sports oriented, and he refers to everything as rivalries.

Danielle Wiley: So Coke and Pepsi are rivals in his mind. This is bad as Michigan, Ohio’s state, but it’s just very interesting. Yeah, it’s very interesting to me to think about how this impacts different generations because I feel like each generation, whether it’s Boomer, gen X, millennial, gen Z, now we have Alpha, they all have their own relationship with brand and the place that it has within their life. And I was wondering how you think, I mean, it seems to me that Primal Branding can kind of fit into all of those, but even so, do you see a difference with the different generations in terms of how they welcome that into their own lives?

Patrick Hanlon: The thing that I think is true about this is that Primal existed thousands of years ago. Someone once told me that I haven’t done anything that St. Paul didn’t do. No matter how things change. I mean, I came up with this before 2007 and the iPhone, which really the world had to catch up to what we were talking about and proliferate it, which is what the iPhone did, has done. And so it’s just accelerated it so that you can tell your stories. And once you identify all of those seven things, by the way, you distribute them across social, digital, and traditional media. And that’s St. Paul, I guess, would travel in a boat or walk to different places and tell them the stories and all that.

Patrick Hanlon: And so it’s not really just a format for storytelling. It is that, but it’s also a format for how you distribute that story, your story across whatever media are out there. And today, of course, we have social media and content and so forth, so the technologies may change or evolve, but the technique for foundation format remains the same, the construct remains the same.

Danielle Wiley: But do you think that mean, technology aside, it seems to me that psychologically the different generations welcome brands into their lives in different ways. I often say that Gen Z, they kind of expect that everything is sponsored, and as such a bit more, there’s kind of like a cynicism built into the way that they consume media, whereas Gen X, I think being one, there’s more of a trust there and kind of like a belief in the authenticity of what people are saying. And it seems to me that those two very differing perspectives when it comes to how they consume media has to have an impact on how they’re engaging with brand.

Patrick Hanlon: Yeah, I think no matter what generation you’re a part of, I think you’re familiar with companies trying to claw their ways and their way into your lives, and that’s a commonality, but the common denominator probably in capitalist society, but the popular society. But I think that primal, what primal is really it’s the way our brains work, acknowledging the way our brains work after a couple million years of brain development or whatever. Not to get too spooky about it, but we have things that icons, for example, which we look at as being the Nike Swoosh or Apple design or Tesla design or whatever things, icons, ping all of the senses, sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. And they’re really things that help us. Icons are directly wired to our brains to help us feel safe, alert us if we’re in danger, really smoke, sirens, things that sting, things that don’t taste good.

Patrick Hanlon: And we spit them out. And that’s where it gets, becomes very primal because once you insert some sort of little earworm into a piece of music, for example, hip hop or anything, any form of music, we go, oh, what’s that? Or a new color. And look at all the raging greens, lime greens and oranges that are out there that used to be for safety wear, right now are just t-shirts, right? And jackets and so forth. And they’re alerting us to danger kind of goes away and they become either a fad or just commonplace all of a sudden.

Patrick Hanlon: And what used to be an alarm is now a commonplace and doesn’t alarm us anymore. So we have to find something else that will attract our attention. And that’s why brands need to reconsider their icons, whether it’s switching out their logo, changing the website or readjusting the packaging to grab the attention all over again.

Patrick Hanlon: And Starbucks, I think, I don’t know if they do this on purpose or because they’re trying to cut costs or whatever they’re trying to do, but they’re constantly reshaping their cups, making them wider, smaller, shorter, taller, fatter, whatever, altering the size. Because people who come every day to Starbucks, where Starbucks is a part of your morning routine, feeling that the size and shape of that cup can become routine, right? Routine equals boring equals, maybe I’ll go to Blue Bottle tomorrow or some other place, right? Caribou or someplace. Someplace else. And so Dunking Donuts, God help us, but-

Danielle Wiley: I grew up in New York, so I love a Dunkin Donut’s coffee.

Patrick Hanlon: Well, do you remember Chock full o’Nuts?

Danielle Wiley: Of course. Yeah.

Patrick Hanlon: Yeah. I remember New York and the only Starbucks in New York, there was only one Starbucks in New York, and it was up just north of Times Square, up on Broadway, I think. And there were still all these Chock full o’Nuts around. They were all retail things around for those who never saw Chock full o’Nuts. And they were everywhere. And I thought, I wonder if someday Starbucks will be as commonplace as a Chock full o’Nuts. And of course they are. And Chock full o’Nuts is gone. Yeah.

Danielle Wiley: It’s amazing how the retail establishments have that symbolism of, I remember my husband and I lived at 28th in Madison before, way before that was a cool area to live in. And right before we were leaving, a Blockbuster opened up a block away from our apartment, and we’re like, oh man, this neighborhood’s finally getting cool, and something’s happening here, and we’re leaving. Blockbuster.

Patrick Hanlon: Yes, blockbuster, Chock full o’Nuts. Two ancient brands.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. Now that we’ve established that we’re both old.

Patrick Hanlon: Yeah.

Danielle Wiley: So I mean, obviously Sway Group is an influencer marketing agency, and you talk a lot about just the five times that someone has to really hear about a brand before they’ll make a purchase decision before it kind of sinks in and they make that move. What are your thoughts on, I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about social media, but what are your thoughts on influencer marketing and using these kind of, I mean, I guess it’s nothing new. We’ve always had celebrity spokespeople, but it’s kind of just on a much larger scale and a lot more kind of dispersed and out there.

Patrick Hanlon: More populist, it’s become more of a populist.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah, yeah. But what are your thoughts on bringing these people in? I mean, there’s a big trust element there because suddenly there’s a certain element of control that you lose when you’re letting someone else tell your story and be that spokesperson on behalf of your brand. I mean, obviously, certainly the way we do influencer, there is some level of control. Clients see content before it goes out. They provide post instructions, key messages, there’s all of that. But at the same time, it’s not the brand telling that story. It’s some kid sitting in his mom’s basement or a girl dancing in a parking lot. It’s a lot more dispersed than it used to be.

Patrick Hanlon: Yeah. Well, I think that the core of that, the influencer and of the celebrity sell that we used to do is that it’s word of mouth. And you’re trying to give someone, have someone who seems sort of like us, recommend the product or service or whatever it is. And so that’s what influencer marketing is. And at its core, and word of mouth has always been the strongest form of advertising, the most powerful form of advertising. And we used to laugh about that, kind of snidely, because at that time, we couldn’t put metrics to it. But now we can. And now that we can, of course, the influencer, if they are genuine and honest and authentic and not trying to scam us older people, brand managers, they’re great. And as you say, it’s people need to just reiterate what you alluded to. People need to see it.

Patrick Hanlon: And this is from Edelman PR, a study they did years ago. People need to see us in five different places in the United States before they are really aware of us and can say, oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard of those people. So in five different places, one of them can be an influencer, one of them can be a Super Bowl spot, one of them can be an outdoor board or an article, or just your friend. And really the influencer is taking the role of your friend and just networking theory and your friend’s friends, your friend’s friend. Friends of friends. And so their networks become your networks.

Danielle Wiley: It’s so interesting because I think it, when I first started doing influencer work, which was kind of before it was a thing, and in its infancy, we were treating influencers like journalists, and really think sending them product and hoping they would review it, and there was no payment exchanged. And then we kind of realized, you know what, no, they’re not journalists, they’re spokespeople and the whole industry transition to more of a spokesperson model. But what’s beautiful about it, I think, is that there’s, to your point, that they are a friend, I think that’s a lot more prevalent and more of a benefit with an influencer than a traditional celebrity. Because you feel closer to that person.

Patrick Hanlon: They’re more, yes, they’re more like you.

Danielle Wiley: Which is another Edelman study.

Patrick Hanlon: Yes. And thank God for Edelman. Yes. And I think there is a distinction between the influencer and the more journalistic content creator who also has, they have, if they’re lucky, thousands, tens of thousands of fans due to their either photography, writing, whatever it is. I mean, it’s what we used to call feature writing in magazines and so forth. So huge.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. Okay. So we only kind of touched the surface of it. So we are going to put a link to your book, and hopefully everyone kind of got the bug and got interested. And we’ll buy your book and learn a ton more about Primal Branding. But before we let you go, so we ask all of our guests to share with us what-

Patrick Hanlon: Oh, no. Is this the pop question?

Danielle Wiley: Yes.

Patrick Hanlon: Okay.

Danielle Wiley: So it’s an easy one. So what was your favorite commercial as a kid? So not a commercial that you worked on, because we know you worked on a number of those, but the commercial that sticks with you from your childhood, because I think that was probably one of the first times we were all influenced, really?

Patrick Hanlon: Yeah. Yes. You asked me about this. I think that it’s probably J-E-L-L-O. There’s always room for Jell-O, which I was lucky enough to work with Tony Isador. He was older, although younger than me now. And I was just a fledgling copywriter in New York. And my first year in New York, I had three different jobs because I just kept asking for raises. Tony wrote, there’s always room for Jell-O at Y&R, which used to be a great agency at the time-

Danielle Wiley: Oh, wow. That’s another great one

Patrick Hanlon: And his wife wrote ring around the collar, which is another great one. Yeah. For… I don’t know, which detergent do-

Danielle Wiley: I don’t remember which one. I mean, I remember the commercial.

Patrick Hanlon: But the-

Danielle Wiley: Very vividly and don’t remember which brand, which says something.

Patrick Hanlon: Well, here’s a test. Here’s a test. Yeah. Yeah. But anyway, Tony was great. Yeah. He wrote, there’s always Room for Jell-O and there always was room for Jell-O.

Danielle Wiley: Awesome. Well, this was great. Thank you so much for joining me, and hopefully everyone will go out and buy your book and follow you on social media. And thank you so much again.

Patrick Hanlon: Thanks for having me. It was terrific being here.

Danielle Wiley: You can find Patrick and Primal Branding on social media at @PrimalBranding on Instagram, @HanlonPatrick on Twitter, and Patrick Hanlon on LinkedIn. Thank you for listening. Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. Please check back next Monday for a new episode featuring marketing conversations through the lens of influence. I am your host, Danielle Wiley, and this is The Art of Sway.