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The Fortune Cookie Principle Summary

15 min read ⌚ 

Quick Summary: “The Fortune Cookie Principle” demonstrates, through a plethora of examples, that, in the business world of today, much more important than how good you are is how well you tell your story—and then offers a framework consisting of twenty keys to help you begin telling your brand’s story from the inside out.

The Fortune Cookie Principle Summary

Who Should Read “The Fortune Cookie Principle”? And Why?

Seth Godin says that “this should be the next book you read. Urgent, leveraged, and useful, it will change your business like nothing else.” And who are we to argue?

Heed to Godin’s advice especially if you are a marketing strategist, an entrepreneur, or a business owner.

The Fortune Cookie Principle Summary

Even a four-year-old entrepreneur with her first lemonade stand knows the one, basic truth about business: it doesn’t matter how good your idea is if nobody knows about it.

In other words, just setting out your stall is not enough.

And yet, writes Bernadette Jiwa, that’s exactly what most of us do in business.

“We take our idea, our product, our innovation,” she writes, “and expect people to pay attention to it. We try to change what people think (using the facts), so that we can change what they do (buy our products and services).”

However, today, people have way more choices than they actually need, giving them one luxury, our ancestors never had: they can simply ignore the things they don’t care about.

“Changing how people think and getting them to act isn’t so easy anymore,” concludes Jiwa.

That’s where The Fortune Cookie Principle comes in. Using a plethora of well-known examples, the book reveals why the key to building a great business is devising a great brand story—and then proceeds to explain how you can write it yourself by focusing on the 20 most important keywords.

New Marketing: A Recap

According to Brian Solis, only 71 of the companies placed on the original Fortune 500 list compiled in 1955 remain there today.

The reason?

Well, as Seth Godin has repeatedly shown us, the rules of the game of marketing changed in the meantime and only the ones who really bothered realizing this are still in it.

At the beginning of her book, Jiwa offers a quick recap of what you need to know—aimed at the ones “out of the loop:”

Attention is harder to get and keep now. We’re living in the opt-in age now, i.e., people can ignore everything that comes their way simply by changing channels, scrolling or installing an Adblocker. “In theory,” Jiwa says, “people are easier to reach, but in fact, they are harder to engage.”

Advertising is not marketing. “A double-page spread in the weekend newspaper is not marketing,” reminds Jiwa her readers. “A promoted tweet is not marketing. A billboard at the train station is not marketing.”

Marketing is not something that’s tacked on at the end. There was a time when it was enough to say, “We invented this; now let’s hire someone to find a way to sell it.” That time is long past.

Real marketing is built into what you do and why you do it. Instead of being just tacked on at the end, marketing is an organic part of what you do, aligned with your mission, objective, and values.

Having the market’s attention is not enough to guarantee success. Just think of it this way: Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012. Even though, for generations of people, saying “Kodak” was practically synonymous with saying “a camera,” just like saying “Google” is today synonymous with Internet searching. Modern marketing is dynamic—and it’s more than marketing.

The Fortune Cookie Principle

Not that long ago, Simon Sinek casually revealed to the world the simplest—and yet, the powerful—idea of why some companies work, and others don’t.

Namely, the former don’t sell commodities (what), nor the way these commodities are made (how), but they sell stories (why).

Well, that’s the basis of what Bernadette Jiwa calls “The Fortune Cookie Principle.”

Every idea, she says, every innovation, every product, and every service has two elements: the cookie and the fortune.

The cookie, in this analogy, is the commodity, the utility, the tangible product. The cookie is the thing you put in the shop window, and it has a fixed value. The cookie is the what.

Then, there’s also the fortune, “the magical, intangible part of the product or service, which is where the real value lies in the hearts and minds of the customer.”

“The fortune is the story,” Jiwa explains, “the thing that makes people feel something. The real reason they buy the product in the first place. It’s your purpose, your vision, and your values manifested. It’s also the customers’ story and worldview reflected back to them. The fortune gives the product an acquired value or a different perceived value.”

In short, the fortune is the why.

You already know where Jiwa is heading.

People don’t buy fortune cookies because they taste better than other cookies: they buy them because of the delight they offer at the end of the meal.

That’s why, if you want to build a great company, baking a good cookie is merely the beginning: you need to focus most of your energy on something else, something far more important—creating a better fortune.

The Story Is Your Advantage (Building a Brand vs. Selling a Commodity)

“Great brands are the ones that tell the best stories,” said once Jason Fried, the co-founder of Basecamp, practically summing up the section above. “Sure, good products and service matter, but stories are what connect people with companies.”

Bernadette Jiwa has a better way of making this more comprehensible to her readers: via two very simple mathematical equations:


In other words, the difference between a brand and a commodity is quite straightforward: the story. Because, after all, stories are how you attach meaning and significance to anything, and businesses are not an exception.

It is a scary and somewhat painful truth, but it is the truth nevertheless: “the product with the most features and benefits doesn’t always win.”

Jiwa knows that this is the opposite of what you’ve learned at school, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t right.

Think about it this way: the students with the best grades usually don’t get the best jobs and almost certainly don’t have the best lives. (We know quite a few examples, and we’re pretty sure that you know at least a few similar ones as well).

For better or for worse, every single day, people who are simply “good enough” succeed in life. And the main reason why is: well, they are capable of telling a better story.

The conclusion?

It’s not the commodity you sell—its quality, its price, or its distribution—that is your competitive advantage; it is the story: the story is your advantage.

What Is a Brand Story?

“A brand story is more than a narrative,” writes Bernadette Jiwa.

“The story goes beyond the copy on a website, the text in a brochure, or the presentation used to pitch to investors. Your story isn’t just what you tell people. It’s what they believe about you based on the signals your brand sends. The story is a complete picture made up of facts, feelings, and interpretations, which means that part of your story isn’t even told by you.”

In other words, everything you do—from your staff to the packaging to the way you communicate with your customers—is part of your brand story. Gone are the days when a brand story was just a catchy tagline on a billboard—a brand story today is the foundation of a business, a foolproof strategy for future growth.

One more thing, though a brand story is also not what merely gets you to be top-of-mind; it is what gets you to be close to heart.

It is the feelings that a brand generates which have the potential to differentiate one brand from another, for the simple reason that consumers can emotionally attach to a limited number of brands.

If you don’t believe Jiwa, just make a quick mental comparison between Microsoft and Apple.

Which one is the top-of-mind brand? And which one is the close-to-heart?

You know the reason.

The Twenty Keys to a Great Brand Story

According to its author, the “Fortune Cookie Principle” is “the foundation upon which you can differentiate your brand and make emotional connections with the kind of clients and customers you want to serve.”

It is, in more theoretical terms, “a brand-building framework and communication strategy consisting of twenty keys that enable you to begin telling your brand’s story from the inside out.”

These are the twenty keys:

1. The Truth

The truth, in the meaning Jiwa uses it, is not just a “collection of facts, figures, and nutritional values that are printed on your packaging.” It is a “real understanding of the business you’re in.”

And this, in Jiwa’s words, “often has less to do with the product you are selling or the service you are providing and more to do with the feelings your brand elicits.”

So, ask yourself: what business are you really in? What do your customers want from you, and how do they want to feel?

Remember: you’re not selling a 32MB music player, but 1,000 songs in a pocket. And you are not selling cars, but excitement (Porsche) or safety (Volvo).

2. Purpose

This is the why: why are you in business? If it is to make money, then chances are you’ll never build a great brand.

You are in the business because you can do something nobody else can, like satisfying everyone’s curiosity (Google) or delivering razors by mail (Dollar Shave Club).

Share your purpose and make sure that you stay true to it.

3. Vision

What effect will your business have on the future? What happens because you exist? How can you support this vision in the day-to-day running of your business? How will the changes your business brings about change how your customers feel and then act?

Your vision is always about change: whether it’s a tiny part of the world, or the world entire, you can’t build a brand if you don’t want to make the future a better place for at least someone (that is not you).

4. Values

Values are the answer to the question, “What do you believe?” Make a list—there are no right or wrong answers.

And once you make it, ask yourself this: How are you demonstrating your beliefs to the world and to your customers? Do your values come across in the service you deliver and the tone you use in your content?

If vision is about the future, values are about the present: how is the world better for you being here?

5. Products and Services

As we noted above, a product or a service without meaning is a commodity. To make it something more, tell the story of how your idea came to be and why it matters, i.e., why the world needs your product or service.

Use your story to differentiate your product from your competitors.

6. Your People

If you hire just for skills, you’re not hiring well enough: after all, Werner von Braun was one of the greatest scientists in history, but he was a Nazi. If NASA had hired him today, it would have been boycotted by just about everybody.

Who you hire and what he or she stands for is very important. Your people must fit in your story; otherwise, they are not your people.

7. Value You Deliver

What are you really selling? How do you least like the competition? Why would customers cross the street to buy from you? How does opening and using your product or experiencing your service make your customers feel?

These are the questions Jiwa wants you to ask yourself to realize the value you deliver. It has little to do with price and a lot to do with convenience, time, shortcuts, etc.

8. Name and Tagline

As you know full well, a great name changes the game. Would Nike have been as successful if it had kept its original name—Blue Ribbon Sports—to this day? Would they have grown into one of the greatest companies in the world without the “Just do it” tagline?

Probably not.

It’s your turn.

9. Content and Copy

Nowadays, if you’re not original, then probably you’re just a little more than nobody. More than anything, that applies to your content and copy—your words, your voice, your megaphone directed at your audience.

A great way to realize if you’re original is to ask yourself this simple question: “Could you remove the logo from your website or marketing materials and substitute it with a competitor’s logo?”

If the answer is “yes,” then change everything.

10. Design

Nowadays, everything is designed. So, just like with your content and copy, you need to do something to stand out.

If an image is worth a thousand words, then your design can make people feel emotionally attached to your product even more than your words can.

So, “ask yourself what your design (colors, logo, packaging) communicates about your brand?” and sync this answer to your story.

11. Your Actions

As we said above, a brand story is much more than a name and a tagline. In the 21st century, it’s also much more than design, content and copy, commodities and services… It’s almost everything you do.

Just think about it this way: would you buy something from a vegan company whose owner and employees are noticed celebrating something at McDonald’s?

12. Customer Experience

Customer experience encompasses everything that happens when people encounter your brand. It’s already outside of your territory—but it doesn’t mean that you can’t do something to guide it.

Ask yourself what kind of experience you want to deliver to your customers and then start thinking about how to deliver it.

If you make your customers feel nice—they will share this feeling with others. They will share all feelings, in fact, so be careful.

13. Price and Quality

Now, customers use markers to detect what kind of audience they want to attract; price and quality are two of the most immediate markers.

If you want to communicate luxury with your story, then it’s wrong to be cheaper than your competitors (think Jimmy Choo). If, however, you want to communicate affordability, then your goal is to be as cheap as possible.

Of course, the price goes hand in hand with quality: it’s pointless to be more expensive than your competitors if you don’t offer quality for the money, isn’t it?

14. Position Perception

Let us ask you once again: how are you least like the competition? Build your story around this because that’s how you can differentiate from your competitors.

You want your customers to perceive your product as something unique and to associate it with something grander and more universal.

For example, Vespa is a symbol of freedom—and it sells because of this perception.

15. Distribution

We mentioned Dollar Shave Club above and here’s a chance to mention it once again. Their razors are nothing new; their distribution (via subscription and mail) is.

That’s what you want as well: sending a signal to your customers about your brand through your distribution model.

One mistake you should avoid at all costs is the middleman: our century is the century of networking and direct relationships.

The more personal you get, the more customers you find.

16. Location

Google wanted to open a branch in Berlin, but Berliners are famously anti-establishment and anti-corporation-oriented. Because of this—and because of quite a few protests—Google had to back off.

Don’t make the same mistake when choosing the location for your business: even your locations should fit in with your story.

An upmarket boutique won’t thrive in an area with high unemployment, and it would probably not be a good idea to sell affordability in Silicon Valley.

17. Ubiquity or Scarcity

There are two ways to succeed: either you’ll appeal to the masses, or you’ll appeal to a group of people with a particular worldview.

In the first case, you want to make people feel as if they are part of the crowd; in the second case, you want to make them feel the opposite: as if they are unique.

Whatever you do, however, be consistent: you’ll probably trip if you want to make the leap from ubiquity to scarcity or vice versa.

Of course, there’s nothing that a good story won’t cover—but you better have one already prepared.

18. Community

Your brand is defined not only by your story but also by the people buying that story.

“LEGO fans, the LEGO community. They define what LEGO is all about,” says Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, knowing full well that LEGO is bigger than it is simply because the people who buy it participate in its story.

The greatest of all brand stories are the ones shared by a company’s customers. Think about what you can add to your story to inspire your customers to become a community.

19. Reputation

As you probably know from experience, there’s a difference between what people say about you when you’re in the room and what they say about you when you’re not in it.

Well, the same goes for your brand: reputation is built around honesty, and honesty starts with you.

Think about what you would like your customers to say about your product, and then about how you can achieve that.

Key phrase: inspire loyalty.

20. Reaction and Reach

How would you like customers to react to your brand? Five-star reviews, great feedback about service, or recommendations to friends? There are no right or wrong answers, but, once again, the key is loyalty.

If you’re loyal to Starbucks, you’ll get more coffee than you pay for. That is why 25% of Starbucks’ customers buy their coffee with a pre-loaded loyalty card.

What opportunities do you give to your customers to demonstrate their loyalty to your brand? What do they get in return?

Key Lessons from “The Fortune Cookie Principle”

1.      The Fortune Cookie Principle
2.      Your Advantage Is Not Your Commodity—But Your Story
3.      A Recap of Jiwa’s Twenty Keys to a Great Brand Story

The Fortune Cookie Principle

We all want fortune cookies, don’t we?

Now, ask yourself this: why do we want fortune cookies?

Are they the best cookies? The tastiest ones? The most chocolate ones?

Most people would say, undoubtedly, that it’s neither: simply put, we like fortune cookies not because of the cookie, but because of the fortune.

Bernadette Jiwa says that the same principle should be the foundation of all business. Because people don’t buy the commodity—they buy the story behind it.

Your Advantage Is Not Your Commodity—But Your Story

In two equations, Bernadette Jiwa’s point looks like this:


In other words, you don’t have to be the best when it comes to your product: you just need to be “good enough.” It is the story you attach to your product that gives it significance and meaning and which can make it something more than just a commodity, i.e., a brand.

And “brand” is a different way of saying “a successful future-proof company.”

A Recap of Jiwa’s Twenty Keys to a Great Brand Story

Bernadette Jiwa thinks that you need to build your story around these twenty foundations:

The truth, vision, values, products and services, your people, the value you deliver, name and tagline, content and copy, design, your actions, customer experience, price and quality, perception, distribution, location, ubiquity or scarcity, community, reputation, reaction and reach.

Some, of course, are more important than others, and, depending on your business, some might be of little importance, but not one is irrelevant.

The keys, however, are not meant to be prescriptive, Jiwa says: they are your starting point. But not ignoring them should eventually help you build emotional connections with your customers—and precisely the ones you’d like to serve.

Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.

The Fortune Cookie Principle Quotes

Your job, then, is not just to build a great thing but also to care enough to tell the best story you can tell about it. Click To Tweet There is no more potent reminder of the power of customer reaction than lines at the Apple store in the days leading up to a new product launch. Click To Tweet Attention is harder to get and keep now. We live in the opt-in age, a time when people can scroll on by, ignore advertisements, change channels, and avoid your marketing if they want to. Click To Tweet Steve Jobs didn’t give us a 32MB music player. He gave us 1,000 songs in our pocket. He didn’t give us video calls. He gave us FaceTime with Grandpa. Apple forever changed how we feel about technology by becoming part of our story. Click To Tweet People don’t buy what you do; they buy how it makes them feel. Click To Tweet

Final Notes

The Fortune Cookie Principle may seem like a rather simple book, but as Wendy Wilson Bett, co-founder of Peter’s Yard says, overcomplicating does nobody favors.

The simple questions asked in this book, she goes on, should help everyone demystify the process of building a great brand.

“Had this book been available when I was driving Sales and Marketing Capabilities in my past corporate life at Cadbury Schweppes,” she concludes, “it would have been recommended reading.”

The Fortune Cookie Principle is more than a book for reading: it is a book for applying as well.

So, to quote Chris Guillebeau, “read and apply!”

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