I wrote a lengthy post yesterday that explained an approach that I use with a lot of clients I work with and businesses I run. It’s called “The Mirror of Erised Marketing and Branding Theory.”

In short, what I do with clients/businesses, is determine if the product or service they offer reflects an image back to the customer that makes the customer feel more realized for having used the product or service.

The inspiration for this is the scene in Harry Potter where Harry stumbles upon a magical mirror that reflects Harry with his parents. The name of the mirror is The Mirror of Erised. “Erised” is “Desire” spelled backwards/reflected.

Great companies reflect an image back at the customer of what the customer desires.

When we were coming up with the marketing approach for TuneCore, for instance, we realized that we weren’t really selling the core competency of putting an artist’s work on iTunes (others were and could do that), what we worked to do was to show that by using TuneCore the artists would see themselves as a more actualized/realized musician. We effectuated this through not only providing the core services, but also by providing education, and clearly articulating our values.

ALL great, durable companies do this. No exceptions.

Yesterday, I discussed how Chipotle reinforced their Mirror by giving the customer their recipe for guacamole. Because the recipe is simple and made with nothing but fresh ingredients, this emphasized Chipotle’s value of transparency, and shone a reflection back at the customer that reinforced the idea that by going to Chipotle they feel more realized about themselves: more healthy, more connected to the food they eat…in short, they feel like a more realized version of themselves – they see themselves as they desire. This forges a very tight bond with Chipotle.

McDonald’s on the other hand can not determine what they want to shine back at their customer.

This report (and I promise, I wrote yesterday’s article prior to hearing this) illustrates just how clueless they are.

McDonald’s has decided that they want to be a “modern, progressive, burger company.” As the commentator says [paraphrasing]: “there are already a lot of those out there: Five Guys, Shake Shack, etc.”

The bigger problem, however, is what the CEO, STEVE EASTERBROOK, said during the McDonald’s conference call: “…All of these phases together will culminate in our ability to be seen as a modern, progressive burger company.”

Easterbrook, with all due respect, is missing the point. The problem is not how customers see McDonald’s, it’s how customer’s see themselves when they interact with McDonald’s that matters.

Until McDonald’s figures out how to make a customer who goes to McDonald’s feel like a better version of themselves – the way Harry Potter feels when he gazes into the Mirror of Erised – they will continue to flail and engage in strange random acts of improvement that only confuse customers:

This leaves them competing on price and features, which leads to commoditization, and a race to the bottom, and obsoleteness.

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Chipotle’s brilliance: reflect the image of the customer so they see a more idealized version of themselves

Chipotle has posted the recipe for their guacamole to their site.

This is actually a great recipe for guacamole. It’s how I make it at home.

What’s remarkable, however, isn’t the recipe itself, but rather that Chipotle is – in theory – giving away their secret sauce.

Can you imagine, for instance, Coke posting their formula on their website; McDonald’s providing the recipe for their “secret sauce?” 1

This gesture on Chipotle’s part is interesting because it really shows the value of transparency that informs so much of what Chipotle does, and why they are succeeding in the manner they are, while McDonalds, for instance, is struggling, and promising to “to be more open with customers in an effort to not lose diners to competitors.”

Chipotle knows that they’re selling much more than some sort of “secret” recipe for guacamole that anyone who has even the slightest interest in cooking could replicate in about two seconds.

Chipotle’s core competency isn’t their guacamole (or any of their food).

The reason Chipotle succeeds is because – as with all great companies – when customers go to Chipotle they feel better about themselves for having done so.

I call this the “Mirror of Erised” theory of marketing; meaning, that great companies reflect back at their customers a more idealized version of the customer for having used the company’s product/service (in the same way The Mirror of Erised reflects back a more-realized version of Harry Potter when he gazes upon it (he sees his parents)).

When someone goes to Chipotle, the image that Chipotle’s mirror reflects back upon the customer is an image of the customer as a more healthy, values-orientated person; one who is informed about the food they eat, and chooses to eat healthily.

Chipotle, therefore, “giving” away their guacamole recipe (and the fact that said recipe is a health way of making guacamole) only enforces their “Mirror.”

Compare that against McDonald’s mirror. What is the image reflected back upon a customer when they go to McDonalds? Does going to McDonalds make them feel like a better version of themselves?


And so while, many, many people will continue to go to McDonald’s because it’s cheap, and some people genuinely enjoy the taste, people will likely no longer have the bond that they once did with McDonalds when it first emerged – when going to McDonald’s reflected a mirror that made the customer feel modern, committed to family values and hap, hap, hap, HAPPY:

The great companies know that in an era of commoditization, things like price or product differentiation (for instance recipes for “secret” sauce) are increasingly vulnerable to commoditization. What combats this is a bond that is forged between a customer and company that transcends price or features. A bond that emerges because – for whatever reason – when the customer uses the brand’s product or service she feels like a better version of herself.

Remember, Dumbledore had to stage an intervention to pry Harry away from The Mirror of Erised – it was that strong.


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Source: Chipotle

  1. I know you can find the McDonalds recipe or buy the stuff for only $18,000 per bottle 

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