While many people get their business experience around a conference table, I learned a few key lessons at the poker table that no class or meeting could ever have provided.
Everyone who sits at a poker table puts on a poker face. That’s not to say players try to look as blank as possible — in many cases, it’s quite the opposite. By adopting a specific persona, players encourage their competitors to make decisions on the basis of that attitude, in the hope of leading them to call bets they shouldn’t or fold to bluffs.
In business, the point of keeping a poker face (aka “brand identity,” for the purposes of this article) is to encourage consumers and competitors to make choices that benefit you, without having to directly nudge them into making those decisions. They have an impression of who you are and what you will do, but the final move is always your decision. This allows you to control the narrative — and thereby their decision-making — in a passive way, with you playing the controlling role as an outside observer.
When you engage or respond, you’re able to do so from a high-level, bird’s-eye view. You will know how the public and competition see you and the point of view they’re coming from. You’ve established a brand they’re playing off of, and you know how to talk to them and convince them.
The Benefits of Knowing Your Poker Face
By maintaining a consistent poker face/brand identity across all messaging and creative, you can build an image that serves as your first interaction with viewers of earned media and public relations. People won’t have to read the headline — when they see your name, they will already have an idea about what to think.
This allows you to optimize PR efforts and earned media to produce better leads. People who reach your company through these organic channels know what to expect from the brand, which shortens the conversation and lets you focus on the final conversion. As that brand identity expands, this impression strengthens, helping your business start ahead of square one when dealing with a new prospect.
The Five Types of Players
Successful poker players make better decisions than their competitors. Successful businesses hold more productive conversations with customers. The goals are the same, but the tactics used depend upon the other person’s initial impression of who you are and what your brand is all about — again, your poker face.
Below are the five distinct types of poker faces I’ve seen utilized in business, along with a few pointers on how each type can help maximize the effect of your brand identity.
1. The Sage
Sages are wise teachers, repositories of trustworthy information. Brands like Moz and CoSchedule have this poker face down. No one doubts whether they’re telling the truth because they consistently provide reliable, relevant information. This authority gives them a ton of SEO power because their content answers frequently asked user questions.
To make the most of a sage persona, create a long-form content blog to generate traffic. People have already come to trust what you have to say, so give them more. Create a library of free marketing resources, like CoSchedule’s, to build authority for lead generation. Offer educational courses, as Moz does, to deliver more valuable content and further entrench yourself as an industry expert.
2. The Explorer
Explorers constantly try new things, but secretly, all of their tactical switches stick to a single overarching strategy. Big brands like mobile providers (Sprint, Verizon) and restaurant chains (Chipotle, Domino’s) personify the explorer poker face. They have large budgets, which helps them take calculated risks within accepted tolerances, but smaller brands can get creative with branding, too.
This persona looks for new marketing tactics while sticking to a consistent voice across channels. If you’re an explorer, maximize paid advertising to see which channels produce the best results. Celebrity endorsements, paid ads, street signs, commercials, short films, interactive content, special contests — nothing is off-limits to an explorer.
Take inspiration from big brands like Budweiser, which co-sponsored the Made in America music festival to generate brand buzz. Use guerilla tactics like giveaways, pop-ups, Snapchat filters, free samples, and other offbeat strategies while keeping the voice and values of your brand consistent.
3. The Ruler
If the sage is a benevolent authority, the ruler is a dominant one. These brands use tactics that demonstrate dominance, showing customers that they are not only a trusted resource but also the final word within the industry.
Some rulers transcend their industries to become household names for types of products: Sharpie, Q-tips, Kleenex, ChapStick, and BAND-AID are a few examples. These brand names are now proper nouns in our modern lexicon.
Like explorers, rulers use paid advertising effectively, but they also use their platforms to take stances on current issues. Brands like Uber and Apple not only dominate their respective industries but also lead the charge on social and political issues. While Uber, for example, is spending $1.8 million in New York to try to legalize ride-sharing in the upstate area, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has publicly denounced President Trump’s order to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
If your brand is a ruler, you can build strong awareness by taking stances on issues and causes that align with your company values. Cultivate a reputation through earned and social media by working on causes beyond revenue-driving efforts.
4. The Jester
Always casual, jesters relate to their audiences on a friendly, authentic level, while using that friendliness to pursue a financial goal. Their messaging is witty and relevant, and it definitely appeals to younger audiences.
Jester brands crush the competition on social media. Wendy’s Twitter account is famous for its quips. Merriam-Webster, which some might have considered a fairly stodgy, prestigious brand in the past, now wows younger and older audiences alike by employing irreverent yet informative humor in its tweets. Arby’s deep-voiced narrator letting you know who has the meats inspires laughter, and whose funny bone isn’t tickled by the Old Spice Man commercials?
If your brand is a jester, too, leverage your reputation as a comedian in your social media posts. Don’t shy away from friendly jabs at the competition. Interact with social media users through challenges and contests, encouraging people to share your clever ads. Use visual content, like GIFs and short videos, to entertain consumers.
To keep content connected to the brand, add hashtags to drive users back to your pages and get them talking. If you’re always funny about it, your social accounts could become viral destination sites.
5. The Magician
The most fascinating poker face, the magician, seemingly pulls things out of thin air and obscures strategies with flair and technological marvels to drive results.
Amazon, Google, and Tesla all invest in next-gen tech such as drones, smart cars, and home assistants to mystify and impress consumers. They are at the forefront of technological advancements, and everyone wants to know what they’ll do next. These brands rarely reveal their secrets outright — they let the products and tech speak for themselves.
While magicians amaze, they never confuse. They avoid technical jargon, sticking instead to their brand identities to keep customers comfortable buying and using their products. Amazon’s self-publishing division, Apple’s App Store, and Google’s Play Store all demonstrate how magician brands also provide platforms for creators and innovators to shine.
To maximize the magician persona, create experiences for people to remember, like Amazon’s Prime Day or Apple’s Keynote events. Keep product announcements under wraps until the grand reveal, letting small hints and word-of-mouth marketing do the legwork. Apple takes secrecy so seriously that it recently fired an engineer who posted a video of his daughter playing with an iPhone X before its launch.
If your magician brand stays at the forefront of innovation and works hard to maintain that air of mystery and excitement, people will be intrigued and always guessing what you’ll do next.
Many Actions, One Face
Your poker face does not determine your own actions — only others’ impression of your brand. At the poker table, jesters can play loose and aggressive or tight and passive without breaking character. As long as they continue to laugh and chat, no one suspects how they’re leveraging their personas to win more hands.
By switching up tactics but staying on brand, you can retain your brand identity and try new things without making fundamental changes to your image. Consider these personas and decide which one your brand represents, then use that knowledge to understand how competitors and consumers see you.
Once you know what they expect, you can either confirm their suspicions or surprise them — the choice is up to you.
About Jon Brody
Jon Brody is co-founder and CEO at Ladder, a growth technology and services company that has spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours helping hundreds of companies grow. Prior to Ladder, Jon was a professional poker and chess player.