How to Build a World: Marketing for the Modern Brand

Kyle Studstill
Feb 23, 2016 · 9 min read
“Small pieces, loosely joined” // words by David Weinberger // illustration by Johan Allerfeld

I frequently use the term “world-building” to describe the process of strategically growing and marketing a modern venture. I use Medium to expose the strategy behind the tiny independent fashion brand Composure as I continue to build it in public, which will frame how I talk about world-building here. But it’s a concept that I’ve found useful when thinking strategically about businesses of all sizes; I recently found myself called in to talk with a digital innovation director at Pepsi specifically because he saw how I’m building Composure, and “world-building” resonated as exactly what he’s been wanting to do.

A ‘venture’ in this sense might be a entrepreneurial business, or maybe an extended brand initiative, or it might be something less commercial and more community-building instead. But what’s clear is that in order to be anything at all it first needs people to inhabit its world.

In the words that follow I explain what I mean by ‘world.


Let’s start by agreeing that there is a well-acknowledged trap that the novice entrepreneur/intra-preneur can fall into: the belief that product is everything. This is the attitude that “if you build a better mousetrap, they will come.” We sometimes over-glorify the genius artist, the one obsessing over details; this is the trap one falls into when one mistakenly values ‘the idea’ and perfection in details over distribution and usage.

Instead, let’s acknowledge that even a perfect product with nowhere to go, goes nowhere. Even the best mousetrap needs to be distributed to people who need mousetraps. It needs to live in a world, a world made of distribution hubs.

A distribution hub is a platform, publication, or marketplace that will get your product into the places it needs to be for your work to grow. So a venture’s world is its collection of distribution hubs.

…This description so far is pretty awkward and abstract. So to better explain what I mean by world I’ll first point to the idea of functional integration, a term coined by Barry Wacksman (Global Chief Strategy Officer of R/GA) in his 2012 book Connected By Design.

Functional Integration

Every business school student knows that traditionally, businesses have grown by employing strategies of either vertical integration (acquiring more business units along a supply chain so as to operate more efficiently), or horizontal integration (acquiring more business units within a category so as to more completely dominate that category, as with Coca-Cola developing Diet Coke and purchasing Minute Maid).

To suppliment these two classic models, Wacksman adds functional integration: growth by way of connected initiatives that act as functional business units. This was back when Apple was easy to obsess over, so Wackman’s book uses Apple’s ecosystem of products as an obvious example.

Critical to the concept of functional integration is that customers benefit by participating in more than one node of the ecosystem: an iPhone is a significantly better device if you’re also using iTunes on a MacBook to sync with your Apple TV.

Distribution Hubs As Marketing

A few years ago I was working with a couple of consulting partners; together we were charged with helping businesses adapt to change, and we often borrowed from the idea of functional integration. What became clear is that when done right, functional integration not only generates product benefits as demonstrated by Apple’s ecosystem, but acts as a new kind of marketing vehicle as well. We used Monocle as an example; what’s nice about Monocle is that their use of functional integration makes the the marketing and world-building point quite clear:

Monocle has a core product: the magazine. But surrounding that magazine are things like Monocle Radio, the Monocle Store in Manhattan, conferences, a film production branch, their London cafe, and various other initiatives. Each of which not only produce business for Monocle (functional!) and support each other (integrated!), they each also act as touchpoints for the Monocle brand. Apple is sometimes notorious for “not advertising”; in this same way, Monocle doesn’t need to advertise in any traditional sense because it’s initiatives *are* its marketing.

In other words, Monocle has built an entire world for people to inhabit. And looking at Monocle it’s easier to understand the idea that this kind of world is made up of distribution hubs; In Monocle’s case, each initiative and touchpoint is a hub that distributes the Monocle lifestyle to more people.

World-Building & You

World-building, then, is the process of developing more and more distribution hubs.

Of course, Tyler Brûlé and the other publishers of Monocle have significant resources available to invest in its growth—as such, they’re able to independently build each of their distribution hubs themselves, from scratch. Most ventures don’t have such resources available.

Luckily!: For any type of venture that one might aspire to build a world around, there are existing ventures that have already built adjacent, overlapping worlds.

For a tiny, focused venture, its ‘world’ might be just a single marketplace of customers. Many successful Etsy- and Amazon-based businesses operate this way; their entire world consists of just Etsy or Amazon as the sole distribution hub, and there’s no reason for them to maintain any other kind of presence on the web or otherwise.

But imagine you aspire to build a larger, more complex world. If, for example, your independent venture is a line of athletic gear for runners, then you can easily imagine that there already exists everything from runner-centric podcasts to runner-centric publications to niche, fitness-focused marketplaces—all with rich, robust worlds around them. All of these things are potential distribution hubs, in the sense that your presence on & affiliation with them puts you in front of the people you want in the world you’re building.

A distribution hub is a platform, publication, or marketplace that will get your product into the places it needs to be for your work to grow.

I can use Composure as a practical example. There are a couple of content-commerce platforms that are distribution hubs for Composure. One of them is AHALife, a marketplace that reaches customers who care about artisan luxury; AHALife very literally distributes Composure scarves to the 240,000 newsletter subscribers who shop their ecommerce market. But AHALife is just one of many content-commerce platforms out there; there are plenty of others, each with their own kinds of audiences (many people are familiar with Net-A-Porter and Mr. Porter, the most well-known examples).

So strategic growth in this regard means having a clear vision for the kinds of audiences I want Composure to be in front of, and then doing the work required to build strong relationships with the relevant distribution hubs. Some other distribution hubs for Composure are publications (like Holstee’s Mindful Matter and Creative Mornings/Mailchimp’s Out Of The Ordinary Emails), some are marketplaces (like the indie fashion market Colabination), and on the radar are physical-store retailers with whom I aim to build stockist relationships.

Credibility

It’s important to talk about credibility at this point, because access to these kinds of distribution hubs is granted in most part on credibility. Credibility takes different forms for different hubs, but in each case it’s a question of how much confidence you inspire that you are indeed a part of their world. One ecommerce market may look to a combination of brand ethos and production capability. Another might value a large social presense as an indicator of a robust audience and customer base. A publication will care more about editorial fit—type of social presence, rather than size.

In other words, it’s entirely possible to build a presence on any number of social networks / marketplaces / publications / platforms for the sole reason that these things have potential audiences. But this is a mistake, and an easy, tempting one to make. It’s much more productive to build a presence only in places that help you build a relationship & the right kind of credibility with the distribution hubs you want to reach. This is what I mean by strategic growth.

It’s a tempting mistake because the question “what kind of world do you want to build” turns out to be a difficult question for many kinds of ventures—namely, the kinds that don’t know *why* they exist. “We exist to make money” just isn’t an answer sufficient enough to earn credibility with smart, connected audiences and the distribution hubs they frequent. The people who make up these kinds of audiences are looking for brands with vision.

Lifestyle Brands & Functional Integration

In my experience, businesses that consider themselves “lifestyle brands” come to navigate all this rather naturally. They’re pioneered by individuals who are already intimately familiar with the hubs that make up their world; they‘re probably already a part of them. Whether explicitly or implicitly they’ve already done the work to develop a purpose and vision, because the venture they’re building is an authentic part of their existing lives.

I sometimes make the case that indeed, functional integration is a strategy that can only be employed by lifestyle brands. I know lifestyle brand is a term that means different things to different people, so to be clear I simply mean one with a strong answer to the question: “what does the life well-lived look like?

It turns out there are lots of good answers to this question, and lots of fantastic, thriving brands with products & initiatives that help customers live those various kinds of lives. Thinking back to our Monocle example, it’s easy to imagine what the well-lived life looks like from Monocle’s point-of-view. But of course, not all of us share their particular answer—so naturally, there are plenty of others following this model, each with their own unique answers. Another example: the salad company sweetgreen integrates their hyper-transparent food sourcing with things like their annual music festival, each initiative embodying what they explicitly describe as “the sweet life.”

“The sweet life,” as described on sweetlifefestival.com

These examples start to uncover the biggest point I want to make: every world is built around a strong vision — a flag in the ground around which to rally, one that says “we all believe the life-well lived looks like ____.” Show me a thriving independent business built on strong customer relationships (just open most pages of Fast Company) and I’ll describe for you a flag in the ground and the world around it.

Inner Perspective

Composure is built on the idea that finding one’s own flag and answer to the question of the life well-lived is difficult, important work. More difficult than we assume, because it requires a level of inner perspective that not everyone develops naturally. But with this kind of self-awareness, one fosters the vision required to plant that flag and create worlds people want to be a part of. I think that’s a beautiful thing—something worth working for.

A collection from our ongoing series of features, each matching an independent venture to a specific kind of creative perspective

Composure celebrates the people behind lifestyle brands and creative independent businesses, those making beautiful things with a strong sense of inner perspective. We feature these businesses in our weekly newsletter, and tell their stories through our scarves. They share the lessons learned from their own world-building journeys. If we’ve done our job right, in some distant future we’ll be able to look back and know that we’ve helped foster a world with more of the kinds of businesses I’ve been describing above.


I write all this hoping that it’s a cause you too can get behind, hoping that you’ll enjoy following along if you aren’t already (you can subscribe at composure.design). And if so, smash that green ‘Recommend’ heart as hard as the internet will let you — it goes a long way towards finding others who care about these things too.

THX THX THX,
-K

And hey maybe there’s a world you’re building too—I’d be happy to point you to others in the Composure world who might share part of it. Feel free to find me at studstill@alwayscomposure.com, I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Kyle Studstill

Written by

Designer, Composure: unique scarves in a rare balance of silk & wool. Here on Medium I share the world-building strategy behind the brand.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade