The Popularity Mirage – Don’t fall for unrelatable brand marketing examples


“Can you make it look more like Apple?”

When I first entered the agency world in 2006, there was this running joke that everyone wanted to look like Apple.

Just 30 days into my first agency job, it happened. A rebrand client asked me to make their website look more like Apple. 

Ok, so not a joke, then. More so a request that marketers and designers hear so often that you couldn’t help but laugh so you didn’t cry.

But that client didn’t really want to look like Apple. I gave them what they asked for and demonstrated why it doesn’t work for a CPG brand. 2 months later I had the same experience with a global Pool and Spa brand.

What they really wanted was to look cool. To be popular. To have a personality. 

I call this the Popularity Mirage.

The Popularity Mirage: A marketer’s inclination to imitate popular or splashy brands with unrelatable advantages.

It feels like certain brands have it all – the glitz, the glamour, the massive fan base, and media buzz. They dominate the spotlight, celebrated as case studies and best practices. 

Can you learn from these brands? Yes. There are good marketers and strategies at play. 

The Popularity Mirage happens when a brand has certain advantages that you cannot match. These advantages take 3 forms:

  • Resources: More money, brand awareness, celebrity
  • Fandom: Built-in audience, affinity
  • Economics: Unique business models affect strategy

When you see an example of something you want to emulate, try to separate the success from the mirage. From the advantages. 

We’re seeing this right now with the Barbie movie success. What advantages did the Barbie movie have that many brands might be missing?

  • Major celebrity talent, stars and director
  • #1 selling toy in history
  • Incredible existing brand and awareness
  • $150 million marketing budget

Does this take away from the great job the Barbie and Mattel teams did in creating and marketing the movie? Of course not.

But, it makes it harder for marketers to learn the right lessons from an example like this. 

This is why we always had a variety of business types speak at Social Fresh conferences. Everyone wants to hear from the biggest, splashiest brands. But, if you hear similar lessons from various industries, it has more veracity.

Let’s look at a few examples. 

In social media, a few specific industries typically have higher engagement rates across the board — namely sports, entertainment, higher ed, and nonprofits. What do all of those industries have in common?


Fandom is a major advantage. The “build it, and they will come” strategy works better when you already have a big built-in audience with a vested interest in your success. 

This isn’t to say marketers in these industries have it easier necessarily. 

But, if you are looking to your local NFL team as an example for how to market your business, please keep in mind you will never have the built-in fandom of an NFL team. 

I also see the Popularity Mirage on TikTok. If you ask most marketers what brands are getting TikTok right, you’ll typically hear the same 9-10 brands mentioned. All amazing accounts, some less relatable than others.

Two brands mentioned are Planet Money and The Washington Post. The creators who drove the early growth and strategy for these accounts are incredible talents (Jack Corbett and Dave Jorgenson). 

But, I would place both of these examples into the Popularity Mirage because they are media brands. Media brands operate on a different business model. Content is their product. Jack and Dave came into TikTok as video experts. They’ve both done an incredible job producing content in specific skit formats that work really well to entertain and inform.

That’s difficult to model for non-media brands. You can learn from watching them, but their strategy is harder to replicate than other successful business strategies on TikTok.

When we’re building out the workshops for our TikTok training course, we take extra care that our examples don’t all fall into the Popularity Mirage.

If we show example content from a large brand like Chipotle or Starbucks, I focus on videos with more relatable insights. And we zero in on those specific, more actionable lessons. 

Learn from other brands. From colleagues. Celebrate success in every form in our industry. 

But keep in mind fundamentals. Don’t make decisions on unresearched assumptions. 

And never ask a designer to make your website look more like Apple.


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