VOL. MMXIII..No. 209


What Ernest Hemingway Taught Me About Brand Strategy

It’s been said time and again that it doesn’t matter how great your business proposition might be, if you can’t support it with great people, great service, and the a product that responds to a market need, you’ll find the road to being a success a challenging one.


In other words, a great brand is only as good as the sum of its parts. I often think that successful people are like brands too. It’s not enough to be talented. You have to have a compelling story that makes people believe in your capacity to make remarkable things happen.


We all know that a good story has a strong beginning, middle, and end. What’s the hook? How do I feel connected to the idea, and why? Think of the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank. They nod off pretty quickly when faced with an entrepreneur lacking a coherent pitch.


 A compelling story makes even ordinary products and services more meaningful, while simultaneously informing the entire business process – the part we don’t see.


In Ernest Hemingway’s 1932 book, Death in the Afternoon, he writes that “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader…  will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”




Hemingway developed his idea of the “Iceberg Theory” with his 1932 book, Death in the Afternoon. “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”


Could the same be said about a brand? Is a brand like an iceberg?


If the tip of the iceberg is who we say we are as a brand, then what lies beneath is the demonstrated truth, manifested in what we do and how we do it.


Of course the customer does not always need to see what’s below the surface, which is why I think Hemingway’s idea is such an interesting one when applied to a brand’s DNA.


Think of Apple, an iconic brand that creates seemingly simple and well-designed products that perform and solve a multitude of useful tasks. What we see on the surface – minimalist design, creative innovation – is what draws us to the brand. Yet below the surface, so much more is involved in what makes the brand a success. 


A brand’s values, intelligence, and culture determine its ultimate success. They may not always be articulated to the consumer but they wordlessly underscore the profound and meaningful characteristics that make a product or service unique and valuable. Equally important are a brand’s supply chain, service, selling strategy, R&D, and production efficiency. They exist below the surface, while the brand’s cheerful proclamation of being the best, rises above the surface.


So old Hemingway wasn’t far off, even if he was writing about tortured alcoholics in Spain than brand economics. But his Iceberg Theory is one way to look at business strategy in a time when so many startup brands are launching with little below the surface.


Does their brilliant idea stand on a solid brand foundation? Do they have a razor sharp back-end to support their offer? And just how many are able to move forward and take calculated risks towards challenging the status quo — without suffering the fate of the Titanic?


Building a remarkable business requires the audacity to think differently, to be fearless in the face of the unknown. “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, and the capacity for sacrifice,” wrote Hemingway. “Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, and sometimes destroyed.”



Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (in liquid form)

courtesy of haiteration


Hemingway famously invented this cocktail following the success of his book. He recommends “drinking 3-5 slowly.” I can’t make it past two.


In a champagne flute or coupe, pour one jigger of Absinthe slowly over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon (a fork will do as well.) Top with enough chilled champagne to obtain a milky effect.


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