By Stephen Dupont, APR

An abridged version of this article appeared in the March 2019 issue of Strategies & Tactics, published by PRSA.

Every day, you race by brand messages designed to grab your attention. 

Billboards along the freeway.

Sponsored posts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Video pre-roll on YouTube. 

Emails from your favorite brands in your email box.

And if you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll notice that whether it’s a paid message, an owned message or an earned message (editorial), brand owners have mere secondsto grab your attention.

Whether our attention spans are actually becoming shorter, according to a 2015 study by Microsoft as reported in Time magazine, or not, the fact is, consumers are bombarded by so many messages throughout any given day, that marketers and communicators have never been as challenged as they are today in grabbing someone’s attention.

This is especially true if you’re trying to attract new customers to your brand.

The challenge is not merely getting attention. It’s making your message stick long enough that someone will pay attention to your next appeal — and the next one after that. 

It’s in those precious first seconds where brand building begins or, fails.

That’s because branding is not a logo. It’s not an ad. It’s not a positive story about your brand in the media. It’s not an event. Or a coupon. 

It’s a relationship between people – those who own the brand, the employees of an organization (business, nonprofit, government agency) and the person who needs a particular product or service. 

A brand is a promise

My friend Dan Wallace, co-author of The Physics of Brand, pointed out to me at a lunch one day, “Think of brands that have been around for a really long time. They were named after real people…Ford, DuPont, Nestle, Lloyds of London.”

It’s a fundamental principle of branding that we should never forget. At its core, branding is the experience that one human promises to another human. 

For example, when I need a really good donut, I go to Granny Donuts, near my home. Yes, the brand of these donuts is Granny Donuts, but behind the brand is Xuan To, the owner, and his wife, who emigrated to Minnesota following the Vietnam War. Every time I visit – from the very first time I stepped through the doors of their 70’s décor-style donut shop – I am greeted graciously and joyfully. And yes, the glazed blueberry Bismarck, my usual, is out of this world. 

It is that combination, a quality product or service that meets a need combined with the experience of buying and using it, that is the brand. 

This leads me to two other key points about branding that you, as someone who may be influencing the direction of a brand, should consider:

1.) The best way to capture a person’s attention is still, in this digital day of age, through a referral (word of mouth), and 

2.) to hold onto a person’s attention, you need to connect with a new consumer (employee, investor, vendor, etc.) emotionally. 

This is why it’s so important to never forget or take for granted those with whom you already have a brand experience.

Who is core to your brand?

All brands have a range of people who have a personal experience with that brand, from people who are super fans or enthusiasts – those who go out of their way to share their experience with as many people as possible — to the opposite extreme, brand haters, who, as you can imagine, look for every opportunity to trash or troll a brand to the world. Fortunately (and unfortunately), social media, review websites such as Yelp and Glassdoor, and email fuel the acceleration of both brand love and hate.

Your attention should be focused on your brand’s core enthusiasts. These people are, after all, the people who are most likely to refer your brand to someone looking for a product or service to fill a particular need. 

That’s how I found Granny Donuts. When my wife and I moved into our new home 12 years ago, my neighbor down the road, William, went on and on about how I had to try out Granny Donuts. And so I did, and in turn, I became a zealot. 

That same process has led me to many of my other favorite brands – Alta ski area, Trek bikes, Camp Widjiwagan, Ping golf clubs, the Montreal Canadiens, Toyota, REI, MoMA, Pearson’s Nut Goodie, among others.

And what is at the center of those shared experiences?

It’s stories. Stories told with emotion. 

Let’s admit it. We’re suckers for a good story. That’s why so many of us succumb to those end-of-the-year emotional appeals from nonprofit organizations.

It’s those same stories that engage our attention and lead to new brand experiences. 

As I was searching for Christmas gift ideas for my wife, I recalled this new brand started by my friend Kelly Groehler, APR, a Twin Cities public relations consultant. I loved her story, which caught my first seconds of attention: she loves art and wants to wear the art of female contemporary artists, so she teamed up with artist Kate Iverson to create this sassy startup brand – Alice Riot — which combines an art gallery and apparel line, offering women’s dresses, skirts and scarves that feature limited-edition prints by female artists.

Over the course of the past year, Kelly kept earning my attention with stories and images of businesswomen wearing Alice Riot.

A year after I first learned about Alice Riot – I bought an Alice Riot scarf for my wife Rebekah and immediately upon opening it, she loved it. And we both loved it even more when, on New Year’s Day, while having breakfast with some long-time friends, our friend Barbara immediately complimented my wife on her new scarf and another diner came up and said, “Is that an Alice Riot scarf?”

Alice Riot caught my attention with the story about how it was founded. It continued to engage my attention with more stories. Now my wife, after the purchase, has a story that she shares with others who ask her about her Alice Riot scarf. I think I’ll be buying more Alice Riot in the future.

This is branding at its fundamental best. 

Five key points:

How can you, as a marketer or communicator, get to this place with your brand? Here are five thoughts to consider:

Listen deeply– Take the time to go back to your customers and listen deeply to their experience with your brand – to what caught their attention, and why they stayed in engaged. Was there a compelling story that made them want to stick around?

Plant a flag in the ground– Stop trying to be everything to everyone. Plant a flag in the ground. Stand for your values. Stand up for your employees and customers. Choose a side. Stop saying it, just be it. 

Live your attitude– Have you ever wondered what attitude your brand is conveying and how that attitude is being emotionally received by your core fans and potential new fans? All brands, even something as simple as a branded donut, have an attitude. The question is, “Is it the attitude you want for your brand?” Find yours and start living it.

Collaborate with your customers– To find attention-grabbing stories, invite your stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, etc.) to share theirstories. That means collaborating with them and being confident enough in your brand to let customers share their brand experience on your social media. 

Kick the keyword habit – Key words sometimes may attract new visitors, but when all is said and done, it’s the best story – told with authenticity and conviction — that wins the day. 

Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (, a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis. He blogs at Contact him at [email protected].

Written by Stephen Dupont

Stephen Dupont, APR, Fellow PRSA, is vice president of public relations and branded content at Pocket Hercules, a Minneapolis branding and creative firm. He blogs at