5 ways to quit being boring vanilla, and start being pistachio

People buy pistachio for what makes it different, rather than what makes it the same.

Vanilla ice cream is a crowd-pleaser. Most people like it, and almost everyone will eat it. It’s easy, comfortable, and safe.

Far fewer people, on the other hand, like pistachio ice cream. It’s a distinct and polarizing choice. Yet the people who like pistachio usually love it. Re-e-e-a-lly love it. Crazylove it.

While fewer people buy pistachio, it has a competitive advantage: Rather than dumbing-down its flavor, it can focus on serving a tightly-defined core with a distinct point of difference.

The goal of pistachio isn’t to please everyone. It’s to engage a few people really, really well.

Are you vanilla? Or pistachio?

There’s nothing wrong with vanilla, of course. I keep vanilla in my freezer when my goal is to appeal to the maximum number of people with the minimum amount of whining.

Yet while vanilla might be an easy choice for the masses, it’s not necessarily the right choice for you.

Beware vanilla (unless you have the biggest marketing budget)

If you have the biggest marketing budget in your category, vanilla is probably a smart place to focus. You want the lowest common denominator. Your goal should be to avoid polarizing a substantial segment of the market, especially if your brand has an established, trusted presence among customers. Vanilla brands, such Wal-Mart and Kellogg’s, fascinate with the repetition and familiarity of the Trust trigger, often expanding market share with mass media (for instance, a SuperBowl spot rather than targeted social media).

But let’s say you don’t have the biggest budget. Let’s assume you need to compete fiercely without vast resources, or even without an established market presence.

In this case, my friends, you must highlight what makes you different.
 And that’s where pistachio comes in.

The smaller base of pistachio-loving customers has the potential to become intensely dedicated— even fanatical.

When I was creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky in LA years ago, Alex Bogusky described CP+B as the “pistachio” of agencies when competing for new clients. Instead of trying to out-do other agencies at the usual pitching game, CP+B invented a new one. And won.

Not every brand or company should try to be pistachio. In fact, few have the courage and insight to ever be truly, distinctly unique. But I’ll bet you do. How can your company embrace its own version of pistachio?

How to embrace your pistachio:

1. Identify one thing about your company that makes it distinctly different

It should be something quirky or peculiar, something that might normally be assumed to be a negative attribute. It might even be downright off-putting to the majority of customers. The goal is to find where you and your product diverge from standard expectations.

2. Pinpoint the so-called weak spots of your company

For example, highlight the following:

  • Perceived blemish in your company history (such as a bankruptcy or product launch failure)
  • Lack of extensive customer service support
  • Odd location (such as a store or office in an old strip mall, faceless office park, or inconvenient spot)
  • Slow manufacturing process (causing customers to wait for your product or service)
  • Lack of previous experience in a specific area
  • A peculiar product (not conforming to industry norms)
  • Inconsistent result (rather than standardized format)
  • Unappealing company name (for example, um… “Hogshead”)

3. Identify how these so-called “flaws” can give your customers an unexpected benefit

These flaws are probably things that you’ve felt obliged to cover up, or compensate for. But hold on now. Not so fast.

Illustrate each quirk as a selling point. For instance, if you have an unusually long wait period on your manufacturing, could you use this time to build the customer’s anticipation and background knowledge of the product you will soon deliver?

4. Flaunt your quirks

Rather than thinking of them as a downside you’re stuck with, can you take them on as intentional strengths? Instead of covering up your flaws, how could you embrace them? Even heighten them?

Is there something your current customers appreciate, and even love, about these quirks? (If you don’t know, ask– you might be surprised at how they will champion the very things that you might think of as negatives.) Figure out what type of customer would actively appreciate your quirks. How can you target and pursue these people?

5. Activate the Rebellion trigger

Fascinate your customer with the Rebellion trigger, using creativity, irreverence, or surprise:

Vanilla lives in the comfort zone

As with any bell curve, most companies will always want to cluster smack-dab in the middle, where vanilla and chocolate and strawberry live: in the comfort zone.

But when you want to create fascinating experiences that elicit a strong and immediate response, well, you know which flavor to choose.

Be the pistachio. Refuse to be the vanilla.


*   *   *   *   *

I’m curious to hear what you think. What brands do you think are doing a great job of refusing to be vanilla, and instead, embracing their inner pistachio?


  1. Remax ads about the part time agents bring to light the unspoken truth that some seller’s agents aren’t really doing real estate because they are doing other jobs. Remax agents sell more houses because they are full time agents. It’s funny, memorable, and honest

  2. Tyra, excellent example of a brand that could very easily be vanilla instead identifying a truth, and being pistachio.

  3. Red Bull, perhaps?

    I wonder if this “pistachio” branding applies to personal brandng.  In some fields, I would guess it would be more appropriate to be “premium vanilla-bean flecked vanilla” than something polarizing like pistachio.

  4. Ahh, excellent point. Yes, absolutely, it applies to personal branding as well as selling and corporate branding.

    Even plain vanilla can be fascinating, by eliciting the Trust trigger with consistency and familiarity. The problem is that by trying to appeal to everyone, you risk speaking to no one.

  5. Tom’s shoes has done an excellent job of being pistachio. Starting a business for the profit of others instead of himself takes courage and rather than just donating every now and then, he’s made a business of consistently giving something substantial to those in need. It’s not just a business, it’s become a movement.

  6. Jessica, perfect example. Interestingly, the buzz around the company isn’t about the shoes themselves. It’s not about the customer service or the distribution, like Zappo’s. And it’s not about the technology, like Nike. Rather, it’s about the donation model. 

    To turn a product from vanilla to pistachio, we don’t need to re-invent our products. But we do need to re-think, or even re-imagine, how those products are sold.

    Thanks for your insight, Jessica.


  7. The Chrysler 200 ads “Imported from Detroit” do a brilliant job of turning a so-called weak spot into an unexpected benefit.

  8. This is excellent. In the health and wellness field as well as network marketing, I really need to figure out how to be the pistachio! I could zero in on the name “Shaklee” because my husband pointed out to me that the name of my company is not sexy like Monavie or Arbonne. Hmmm. I wonder how I could capitalize on that?

  9. Hey, that’s a great article! I’m going to go and GET A LITTLE CRAZY!!!

    Amazing how many people go for vanilla….. at least to me. What a boring society we live in! sigh….

  10. I really enjoy reading your article. Plus, that reminds me of how tasty ice creams are! I am from interior design industry, one of things that can separates me from others is to be Pistachio to the people who love it. And most important is to find the right marketing to do it.

  11. I enjoyed your article.  Thanks!  I believe that Jimmy Johns must have followed the same mindset.  They seem to have something unique to offer (making and delivering subs quickly) and they just ran with it.  With many sub shops out there now it could have been easy to just fit in withthe crowd.  I believe that they took it to another level and steered away from the crowd to make their name stick out.

  12. You make outstanding points about the need for differentiation within a specific niche, Sally.  And being a pistachio ice cream lover I just had to write in… super analogy.  When it comes to social media, too – people get enamored with irrelevant statistics like numbers of followers/friends, when they should be focused instead on qualified prospects, which as you point out re niche positioning is key to success.  Keep up the great work, excellent article.

    – Ken

  13. Sally,  There are many examples that come to mind, but the most proinent thought is of Burger King and how they could not compete with the speed that McDonald’s served their burgers.  Burger King focused on ‘Have it Your Way’ versus pre-made burgers and the Flame Broiled burger versus grilled.  So, to your point of the article, rather than making excuses for the extra time it took to get a burger from Burger King, they celebrated the fact that the customer could order the burger any way they wanted and that a flame broiled burger tasted better than a grilled burger.  Thanks for the article.

    — Michael

  14. My son the hip-hop musician has branded himself as a “hip-hop artist with punk sensibilities”, successfully bridging two genres that don’t intersect very often.  I am more of an “intense vanilla” person, and will brand my business accordingly.

  15. Great article. Our dessert wine company–Sonoma Valley Portworks–is pistachio. Our wines are pistachio, our port club is pistachio–but I realize that we are not capitalizing well on our pistachio-ness. Thanks for the insights.

  16. I love
    love your points. Each of you. 

    I’ll comment individually. Thank you for bringing your fresh observations and perspectives to this conversation!

  17. Amy, the health and wellness field is chock-full of amazing potential.

    Right now, most companies in that category seek to offend the fewest, and end up meaning nothing to anyone.

    If you can effectively harness the power of your business — its name, or something else that’s quirky and stands out — your marketing dollars will go farther (and something tells me that your satisfaction will be far greater!).

  18. Sasha – 

    Someone once said, “To do anything great, you have to be a little bit crazy.”

    So I say… YES, go a little crazy!

  19. Kristi, I agree. What makes YOU fascinating (a.k.a. “pistachio”) is unique to you, and will be the main focus of your marketing. Not only is this true for your company, but also your personal brand.

  20. Brad, the Jimmy Johns brand is an excellent example. I have a photo of their storefront which advertises “FREE SMELLS.” Perfect use of the Passion trigger!

  21. Ken, yes — nowhere is pistachio-ness more essential than in social media. Nobody wants to retweet or comment on a vanilla message!

  22. Michael, I hadn’t thought of that: the fact that Burger King took a “pistachio” aspect of their process (slower cooking time) and wielded it as a fascination advantage (“Have it your way”).

    Perfect. Thank you.

  23. I immediately think of Cabela’s- the outdoor outfitter for hunters/fishermen/boaters and frankly anyone who loves the great outdoors.
    ANYONE who has been to one of their stores has always remarked to me ‘WOW-what a place’ from the big game displays to the fish tank filled with huge game fish, to the fantastic merchandising which spells the bottom line for the co., Cabela’s is an absolute stroke of marketing genius in a field of boring competitors. I cannot go to one of their stores without purchasing at least one item.

  24. On behalf of vanilla ice cream, let me make the following points:
    Vanilla gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop because it is bland and boring, thus, somehow it is lesser.
    First, vanilla is the cornerstone of the ice cream empire. What do most ice cream sundaes and other such delights begin with? Vanilla.
    In baseball terms vanilla bats lead-off and can play more than one position. It is the utility flavor.
    Vanilla makes all those topping look good. It sublimates its own game for the good of the team.
    When you go into one of those fancy-pants ice cream parlors where you have them mix in all manner of crappidy-doo-dah what is the most popular flavor? Vanilla. It’s the flavor that feels good in its own skin, thus, is not afraid of being overshadowed by peanuts or Reeces Piece or Oreos. Boo-YAH!
    I do not want to be pistachio. It is hard to spell and I hate to think of all those poor people spending hours opening those stubborn shells. It is too labor-intensive. It sounds too close to Pinocchio and we all remember has close that came to being one hot mess.
    Pistascchio (see what I mean) is like the hot girl who thinks she’s too cool for the room. Vanilla is the really cute girl you appreciate and end up with. Pidashio (geez — it sucks!) is the flavor that ends up as throaty barfly.

  25. Sally.

    no points to add just enjoyed your interesting twist

    good luck

  26. Hey Sally,
    I’m really bummed that you used this metaphor because it’s the same one that literally everyone uses. The assumption is that vanilla is bland and boring. To me, the flavor of vanilla ice cream is as rich and vibrant as any of the other flavors. Plus, and this is key, it marries well to other dessert items – something that Pistachio doesn’t do very well. It’s role as a dessert enhancer, in my view, makes vanilla the one flavor that has something the other flavors do not. A super-power if you will. It’s vanilla’s one unique characteristic that no other flavor shares. You could say that pistachio and chocolate chocolate chip are basically the same in this regard.
    Someday, Hogshead, the world will come to respect vanilla and raise their spoons to toast the world’s best, most unique ice cream flavor.
    Then again, banana choco crunch sounds pretty yummy. Someone should invent that.

  27. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  28. Sally,

    I think some businesses (like the company I work for) that sell “vanilla” products.  We sell commercial & industrial lighting. There are of bunch of companies who sell lighting. As a young child on of my fondest memories is going to a restaurant with my grandpa & after eating my meal we had vanilla ice cream with butterscotch topping. Our business is a lot like the vanilla ice cream because we sell lighting. How ever, we have a “topping” that sets us apart from most of our competition. I personally have 30 years of experience, we have free deliveries, our customer service is second to none, we have over 12,000 lighting items in our inventory, we are nation wide & we stock a huge diversity of hard to find items. I think you may be forced to operate in a vanilla field but you can always add the “special” topping to set you apart from the competition.  Also just because you have been doing business the same way since your daddy started the business doesn’t mean it’s the best way. You have to “tweak” the way you do things occasionally to increase your market share & continue to grow. Sales is no place for sissies!

    Steve Longfellow
    Yes, it’s Longfellow & I’ve already heard all of the jokes!

    • Steve, first of all, I think I might need to copy and paste your words on my wall: “Sales is no place for sissies!”

      Your analogy to the “topping” is an excellent one, because it emphasizes the importance of getting the basics right first (inventory, location, history in the community).

      Here’s to butterscotch topping… and every other flavor that makes our vanilla companies more fascinating!

  29. Mercedes-Benz.   Their still German’s and their ads (even in the USA) continue to promote the performance, luxury, and reliability of their automobiles.    (Some “Americans” they just think of cars as transportation.)

  30. While the fans of vanilla might object to the use of the analogy, the truth is that though Vanilla enjoys widespread popularity, its available at EVERY place ice cream is sold. I can go anywhere to get vanilla, so I look for the most convienent or inexpensive place for it.  But if I want the chocolate & penut butter ice cream, I have to go to the store downtown where I know they have it dispite the Dairy Queen less than 5 minutes away. 

    I work at a Building Materials Supply company.  We sell lumber.  We sell the same lumber that every other lumber yard, home improvement warehouse, etc sells.  There is no difference between our 2x4s and any one else’s 2x4s.  We use our customer service as the ‘pistatio’ flavor that we offer that our competitors do not. 

    • Daryl, what a well-written and insightful observation.

      You describe your product as vanilla, but the customer service as the pistachio… which is a perfect way to explain it.

  31. I love pistachios. And I just found your blog – it’s awesome! Really good stuff, Sally.

  32. Jeff, big warm thanks. So happy you’re here. 

    Have a pistachio cone– my treat!

  33. Sally,
    This post reminds me of the plot of the film Crazy People. If you’ve not seen it, you might enjoy it. :)

  34. Hey, good points. It’s good to be unique in a common world. But I’m with Rachel and “Intense Vanilla”-rich, creamy, smooth-not just that ole plain vanilla anymore. Yum. A good rich vanilla is way up there with comfort and taste. Maybe I can add a few Butterfinger bits on top. Or maybe a little dollop of pistachio!



  1. Biggest Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make When Advertising | Marketing Confessions - [...] waste money. (I lied, there are two things that will happen.  Not only will you waste money, but you’ll …
  2. Spicy « Paperback Junkie - [...] Tangy. Bitter. Pistachio. But never bland or [...]
  3. pg 62: Spicy « Paperback Junkie - [...] Tangy. Bitter. Pistachio. But never bland or [...]
  4. Erzähle dich aufregend! • LiFEcatcher - [...] Stars und die Außenseiter. Sally Hogshead schreibt in ihrem Buch „How the world sees you“, dass jeder Mensch interessant …

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>