Swipe Files - 📂 Taking the red pill of branding

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Today's newsletter is written by my Conversion Factory cofounder, Zach Stevens.

He's the best designer I know and has deep experience with SaaS.

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.
You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Remember, all I’m offering is the truth – nothing more.
— Morpheus

Branding is a mysterious, extremely important tool for growing your business. It’s also difficult to master and wield even for experienced professionals.

But I think I can help with that.

There have been few branding hacks as potent as this maxim:

Great brands aren’t created, they’re stolen.

Upon realizing this, how I think about branding and lead clients through branding initiatives changed.

Intro to Brand Thievery


Oddly enough, the first time I’d encountered Brand Thievery involved one of the world’s biggest and best known brands: Amazon.

You see, my mentor and boss while I was attending design school at SDSU helped formulate Amazon’s brand strategy. He and his team had been flown up to Oregon to talk shop with Bezos to figure out what the emotional compass of the brand would be and how that would impact their product.

They were staying at a nice hotel with a concierge team that recalled and acted upon minute details to improve guest experience.

For example, if you mentioned that you were a fan of the Wall Street Journal, they’d deliver that day’s issue to your room. Or if you preferred a particular blend of coffee, they’d get you a bag of beans to brew.

Sound familiar?

Clearly I’m a fan of beard hygiene and camping products.



It was like lightning struck their brains, this was the feeling they were looking to embody with Amazon’s brand. They pitched the idea to Bezos and the entire product was affected by this new brand direction.

Amazon’s emotional value was inspired by these thoughtful hosts who remembered your name, what you like, and helped you get it.

Amazon didn’t create that emotion or persona, they stole it.

Now, at the time I was only 21 and didn’t think much of the conversation or the significance of this branding method… until I encountered it again a couple years into my freelancing career.


In 2018, I met Luis, a creative director in San Diego who had recently taken the agency he worked at through an extensive rebrand.

Formerly, they were known as Digital Style and after Luis’ work had come to fruition, they became VSSL.

The entire theme of the agency was rooted in piracy. Not like bumming movies off BitTorrent, but legit naval ruffians seeking treasure and avoiding scurvy.


We were on the balcony of their office and I asked “how the heck did you come up with this theme for your agency?”

He pointed to the harbor below, “there.”


Everything he included in the branding was based on the feeling of being out at sea, it was highly personal to the agency principals (who were both boat connoisseurs), and fit the story their clients were living:

“We need a better crew to steward our digital marketing efforts.”

What occurred to me was that the source of all the creative energy within the VSSL brand was taken from right under their nose and that they were able to give all of these aquatic themes new context by applying them to their agency.

Unless Luis had mentioned it to you, you would think that all of the branding was pulled out of thin air. The truth is that it was stolen.


Ok, at this point it seemed too coincidental to have come across the “stealing” framework.

But where it became firmly cemented in my mind was after I heard this story about Steve Jobs and how he created the design for Apple stores:

Think about a traditional computer store, or any store for that matter, what do you see?

Boxes, boxes, and boxes.

Boxes on shelves, boxes on the floor, boxes everywhere.

In short, the place is packed with product and no matter how neatly arranged and organized, it treats products like cattle for slaughter.

True to his rebellious nature, this concept didn’t sit well with Jobs so he sought out inspiration.

But he didn’t look at other stores, he looked at museums.

Museums that house priceless works of art and marvels of nature like dinosaur fossils.

These items are treated with immense respect and given ample space to let viewers bask in their presence.

You feel awestruck staring at them.

Now think about an Apple store.

There is one variant of every product they have placed on single metal stand for a shopper to interact with and minimal product storage is happening in the consumer-facing end of the store.

Apple treats their products like the works of art seen in museums which makes them feel special.

Steve Jobs didn’t create the idea for Apple’s stores, he stole it from a place that made him feel how he wanted his customers to feel about his products.

At this point, there was no doubt in my mind, stealing a brand and the visuals that support them was not a mistake or a one-trick-pony.

It’s a reliable, defendable, flexible framework that ANYONE can use to inject a unique spirit into their company.

Red Pill

I couldn’t unsee stolen brands and every time I come across impactful creative work, I tried and figure out who/what they were trying to emulate.

This happens everyday so I could pull hundreds of examples, but for the sake of your time and the length of this newsletter, here are my top three:

Liquid Death
Water x Hardcore Metal

Email Software x Curious George

Taxi App x Classy Chauffeur (probably named Chives)

It sounds crazy at first, but I can’t think of a single, more profound truth that has changed my view on branding as much as this:

Great brands are not created, they are stolen.

When you see branding in this light, it opens up a world of possibility and fun that you didn’t think was possible in building your brand.

And it is because of this method that you can create something that you are actually proud of and, can say with full confidence, is a reflection of how you want your users to feel.

All it requires of you is awareness of the things that inspire you and the courage to embed it into your product.

Let me know what you think by replying below.


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