We’ve all heard the query, ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ I don’t know the answer (my guess is the chicken) but lately I’ve been contemplating a different query, “What should come first, your business or your brand?”
Let me explain what I mean. By “business”, I’m referring to all the business operations required to create a product or service, and then distribute and market it in a manner that results in profit. Unarguably, any company unable to sustainably accomplish this doesn’t have a business, at least not for very long (unless your Amazon.com, in which case you can run unprofitably for years and nobody seems to care).
By “brand” I’m referring to a branded experience. That experience begins with a noble ideal and articulates why the business exists. It manifests itself through cultural and emotional connections made with the target audience. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, authors of “The Experience Economy” further this explanation bringing attention to the difference between services and experiences, which are often wrongly grouped together. They assert that:
“Experiences are…as distinct from services as services are from goods. When a person buys a service, he purchases a set of intangible activities carried out on his behalf. But when he buys an experience, he pays to spend time enjoying a series of memorable events that a company stages—as in a theatrical play—to engage him in an inherently personal way.”
The best branded experiences result in a hieghtened affinity and cause people to pay extra for your products or services beyond what they cost you to provide them. Meaning, the better your brand, the more you can charge for the intangible value you provide.
Importance of “Brand Experiences”
It is important to note that the term “branding” and “brand experience” are used interchangeably here, but it is the latter that better captures the direction and essence of where the marketplace is heading. It is what the brand has to offer the customer in regards to memorable experiences that is increasingly important and valuable. This is exemplified by Disney’s creation of “theme” parks, opposed to simple “amusement” parks, where “guests” rather than customers are invited to enjoy a truly unique experience.
While business acumen is vitally important, and disciplines like product development, supply chain management, finance and numerous other tasks are essential to making money, they are rarely what separates the good from the great. Great businesses are most often associated with some aspect of their brand experience that represents a big idea, amazing culture, customer relationships, hyper-motivated employees and/or a noble purpose that inspires people.
After spending a week at South by Southwest 2014 in Austin, TX, surrounded by thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs and hugely successful business leaders, I left believing whole-heartedly that your brand experience should come before everything else. There are many ways for people to make money, but what is game changing is finding a way to make a difference. The best brands exist to do something far nobler than make a buck. Rather, it is the intersection of both the company and consumer “why” that a loyal and engaged following is born.
There are many ways for people to make money, but what is game changing is finding a way to make a difference. The best brands exist to do something far nobler than making a buck…
Consider how commoditized nearly every category in North America has become (much to the dismay of executives and entrepreneurs alike). It is difficult to postulate how any business can offer the marketplace something so compelling and differentiated by focusing more on business operations than brand experiences.
Simply providing a good value for a good product just doesn’t cut it anymore. There are too many comparable options to choose from. Adding one more choice is irrelevant. For example, I love a good hamburger as much as the next person, but do I really need FatBurger, 5 Guy’s, Smash Burger, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger Bistro all within 10 minutes of my house? If a 7th burger chain opens up near me, how is that relevant to me? I already have too much choice.
If you agree that most products and services are essentially the same, then what makes one business more special or successful than another? The answer is “the brand experience”. Not your logo, or clever ads, or corporate values, but rather the experience you create, both in reality and in the minds of your customers, about why and how you do what you do.
Much has been written about the pros and cons of branding and how much attention C-suite executives should give it. Yet it is undeniable that since the early 1980’s, “Goodwill” and “Brand Equity” have become increasingly larger assets on corporate balance sheets. On top of this, brand experiences seem to be what customers care about, even if it’s subconsciously or referred to by different names. Only a well-crafted brand experience explains why people pay $200 for a $20 pair of denim jeans, or cross an intersection for one gas station offering fuel for the same price as the station on the nearest corner.
Only a well-crafted brand experience explains why people pay $200 for a $20 pair of denim jeans, or cross an intersection for one gas station offering fuel for the same price as the station on the nearest corner.
In the End
So, what does this all mean? Essentially, if someone is starting a new business, or trying to re-invent an existing business, I suggest they start first with by defining their ideal brand experience. That includes creating a remarkable brand ethos and value proposition people can rally around, as well as figuring out how to operationalize and monetize it. That’s what the founders of Twitter did. They created a platform people wanted to interact with, and then built a business model. Heck, the same is true for something as silly as Kim Kardashian. She built a brand long before she figured out how to monetize herself. Now she’s all pop culture wants to talk about and has a net worth in excess of $40M.
Businesses are a dime a dozen. Great brands get people’s attention. Cult brands are the most iconic and aspirational businesses of them all. Achieving cult status usually requires the C-suite place the brand above all else. Once you start to think that way, many problems disappear and a whole new set of challenges and opportunities present themselves. Spending time on issues like these is single best use of your resources.