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Anchors vs. Comfort Zones: How You Can Be True to Your Brand While Innovating

June 19, 2020


Anchors vs. Comfort Zones: How You Can Be True to Your Brand While Innovating

As marketers, we can get some mixed messages. On the one hand we are told new “news sells. We have to have the “next big thing” to stay relevant. We need to “keep up” with the next generation, because the messaging that speaks to them is different. They’re wise to our tactics, and what works is constantly changing.

At the same time, we’re also saying we need to always be true to our brand! Customers come to us and stick with us for a reason, and if we suddenly change what we’re doing, reinvent the whole brand? We risk leaving a lot of our loyal and best customers feeling like we no longer understand their needs.

So, what’s a marketer to do? I believe the answer is in how we think about innovating and reinventing brands.

Anchors vs. Safe Harbours

Let’s start by visualizing the brand as a ship. Your job is to steer it to some future destination on the horizon.

Like most boats, your brand has an anchor. Anchors hold you in place. At the same time, anchors can be lifted and lowered as you move around. When you find a good spot, you can drop the anchor and chill out for a bit. When it’s time to move again, you lift the anchor and head off.

Remember, the anchor comes with you, and the next time you “weigh anchor,” it’s the sameanchor you’re tossing in the water.

By contrast, we can also think of “safe harbours.” These are friendly ports or “safe” places where we can stop off and rest. They might be a home base we set off from or return to.

Both safe harbours and anchors can help our brands find or reach an audience, but there’s a huge difference between them! The safe harbour keeps you tied to the same place, never moving. The anchor, by contrast, lets you move toward your destination.

The Benefits of Leaving Safe Harbour

The “safe harbour” might be more familiar to you as a “comfort zone.” You can operate here without too much worry or concern. It feels “safe.” You know exactly what you’re doing, and you may even be able to move around a bit. You’re also aware of where the limits of your “safe harbour” or “comfort zone” are.

Never venturing beyond those edges is a big mistake! Many of us don’t want to leave these safe harbours, to get out of our comfort zones, because it seems super risky. You don’t know what’s out there. Maybe there’s a giant wave or a bunch of sharks. In that case, you may end up in a “sink or swim” situation.

We sometimes forget that our safe harbours aren’t totally immune. If that wave rolls into your “safe harbour,” your boat could end up scuttled anyway. Worse, you may not even see the wave coming, let alone have had time to prepare for it. And if the harbour is crowded, you may not have much space to manoeuvre.

By comparison, if you’ve only anchored down, you may be able to get out of the way of the wave or the sharks that are coming for your business. Your brand is much more nimble. You have more options available out on the “open waters” outside your comfort zone.

Beyond that, if you always stay in the safe harbour, you’ll never move toward your goals. It’s like the old saying: A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

By getting out of your comfort zone, heading out into uncharted waters, you give your brand all the opportunities to prepare, to steer, to manoeuvre—in short, to figure out how you’re going to get where you’re going! And through it all, you have your anchor.

Examples of Anchoring

In our nautical metaphor here, the anchor is the essence of your brand. You have this core essence that guides you. It keeps you from drifting off-course, even when the seas get a little stormy. It’s a navigation tool, something you can use to steady your brand.

So, what does anchoring look like? Let’s take a look at some brands that have pivoted and discovered new audiences, while still being guided by their core philosophies—those anchors.

LEGO is a great example, actually. Almost everyone knows the colourful plastic bricks—if not from hours of creative fun playing with them, then from stepping on one (ouch!). While LEGO is marketed as a kids’ toy, recently, more adults have been playing with LEGO.

There are many reasons we might keep playing with LEGO long after we “grow up.” First of all, it’s fun. LEGO themselves encourages creativity, so build to your heart’s content. Adults have better visual-spatial processing, so they can build even more advanced models. (LEGO is popular at NASA!)

Some recent studies show creative outlets like colouring books or, yes, playing with LEGO can help adults release stress. In a world where stress, burnout, and anxiety are on the rise, finding ways to help ourselves manage these feelings is so important.

So, what did LEGO do when they found out that adults were playing with their “kids’ toys” for stress-relief? Another brand might have doubled-down on “it’s for kids!”, but LEGO embraces the idea of adults playing with their product. They even make kits designed for adults. Whether you’re looking for a challenge or just something soothing to do, there’s a LEGO kit for you! LEGO even does business consulting with its “Serious Play” group sessions.

To understand LEGO’s enthusiastic response, we can look at the company’s essence—its anchor. In the 1980s and 1990s, LEGO was envisioned as being a toy for everyone—boys and girls. Duplo was designed for younger children, who might be at risk of choking on the smaller LEGO bricks. And LEGO’s own advertising has embraced a “from 4 to 99+!” ethos, suggesting that adults are sometimes just big kids at heart.

Another brand with a similar trajectory is Pedialyte, an electrolyte drink for infants. Pedialyte is particularly useful in pediatric nursing, where kids can become dehydrated due to common illnesses like the flu. Pedialyte helps replenish electrolytes and keeps kids hydrated, while also being easy on their tummies. It’s also lower in sugar than many of the brands marketed at adults, like Gatorade.

There’s another crowd, a little bit older, that also likes Pedialyte for helping them feel less nauseated: adults who partied a little too hard. Hangovers are linked to dehydration, but they can make you feel so sick, you don’t even want to drink water. Pedialyte can help adults too, even if it’s not who the designers had in mind when they created the product.

What do you do when you find out a bunch of college kids are using your infant health care product to cure their hangovers? Pedialyte could have decided they didn’t want to be associated with this group of consumers. After all, marketing to hard-partying adults doesn’t exactly jive with marketing to new parents with infants and small children. Yet the brand embraced their new audience, even if they still focused on the children’s market.

Why? Pedialyte was designed to help people feel better! Care is at the core of the brand, so if they were also helping some adults feel better, that still speaks to the brand’s ultimate purpose.

We could go on and on with examples. Play-Doh started out as wallpaper cleaner, then transitioned to becoming a beloved kids’ toy. Bounce dryer sheets found new life in gym bags and cars.

The brands in each of these examples was able to move out of a safe harbour, explore something new, by keeping their anchor close at hand.

Venturing Beyond Comfort Zone

One of the ways to discover where your brand’s comfort zones are and where your anchors are is to talk to your best customers themselves. Ask them why they’re buying your product—and ask them why they’re buying your brand.

You might get some surprising results! Pedialyte might not have expected to hear about people using their product as a hangover cure, but that didn’t stop them from embracing it.

That’s because sticking to a “kids only” kind of marketing is an example of a safe harbour or comfort zone. It’s easy to see how we could get mixed up: “Our product is for kids!” might sound like a core part of the brand!

The “anchor” in this case is different though! It’s not about who’s using the product, so much as what it does. That’s the anchor. Pedialyte helps people feel better, whether it’s a baby with the flu or an adult with the “Sunday morning flu.”

Beyond that, people know the name Pedialyte and they trust it. Maybe their parents gave it to them when they were kids. Maybe they give it to their own children. Whatever the case, they trust Pedialyte to deliver, to help them feel better!

Sometimes, talking to our customers about their complete experience and what all the benefits our brands provide and we may fid that why they’re buying our brand is shocking. If a brand stays true to it’s essence it may require us to stay open-minded. A knee-jerk reaction might be to tell the customer they’re using the product wrong or that’s not what it’s for, when we have just discovered a new audience and what’s anchoring our brand. Our best customers can give us the courage to leave our safe harbour and innovate and grow our brands in ways that make sense.

When we have that in hand, we can set sail for new horizons—just by starting with the why!


Purpose often gets confused for a brand position. To remain relevant, new news is the pressure of the day to be able to differentiate and compete. For a marketing person, staying true to the purpose of the brand, but keep innovating can be difficult. 

The answer is how we think about innovating and reinventing brands. If you visualize the brand as a ship with an anchor that can be lifted or lowered vs. a safe harbour as a guideline, you can venture beyond your comfort zone, and realize the full lasting sales potential of your brand. And the key to provide the map is your best customers. 

Meet Margo…brand visioning & marketing

Margo Jay is a Master Brand Strategist with a career leading globally recognized brands; developing and launching a proven model that maximizes competitive sales potential and consumer appeal. She has built the model to help companies of all sizes. Her Client roster includes entrepreneurs through to Fortune 100 brands: NHL teams, Global QSR brands, CPG brands, Broadcast brands, Agencies, Non Profit brands, Hard goods…this model and process provides competitive advantage in any category.

Complete clarity. Ownable distinct selling proposition. Shared values. Brand Clarity. Brand Focus. Brand Inspiration. Brand Obsession. Unlocking brand potential is what she does.

And it all starts with why!

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