One of the first questions brand builders address when they sit down to structure a brand is: What’s the brand agenda? This is a critical issue. What, exactly, will the brand do to advance the customer?
Contain the customer or liberate the customer?
When we’re at this agenda planning point, we can call up the two brand agenda polarities for a horizon-to-horizon perspective. On a practical basis, our agenda will fall somewhere between these two theoretical end-points:
- Contain the customer
- Liberate the customer
There’s obviously a lot of brand agenda working room between these two. You may also find that it’s the rate of customer advance that has the greatest impact on your brand strategy. Innovative companies can sustain high rates of customer advance, progressively raising their customers to higher levels of accomplishment through their brands, in sync with new products coming to market.
On the other hand, companies that innovate with difficulty will tend to slow things down and build a brand cocoon around the customer, in hopes he/she won’t fly away given the slow pace of improvement. While such containment strategies are widespread, they clearly place their brands at risk from product innovation and brand innovation from competitors.
Defining your brand agenda
Every brand has a brand agenda. It’s explicit, or implicit. The brand agenda states how, and how far, the brand intends to advance the customer. It shapes everything your brand does, and how it does it.
You can analyze your own brand to determine its existing brand agenda. Once you do so, you can then do the same for competitor brands. Often, they’re quite similar. That leaves room for new brand initiatives that can make a difference.
How you define your brand agenda will have profound consequences for your brand, and your business. For starters, it will dictate how you interact with customers, and how you structure their brand experience. It will also shape how well you incorporate customer intelligence and energy into your brand.
The concept of brand agenda gives innovative companies a powerful tool in growing their customers. It also gives them potential brand leverage over companies with tired or complacent brands whose only hope is to contain customers. It does this by defining the brand in terms of value delivered to the customer, including brand pathways that enable customer growth. And significantly, it also gives customers a choice in their brand outcome: as a customer, do you want a brand that holds you back, or a brand that moves you forward?
If you’re entering new markets, or carving new space in an existing one, a brand agenda focused on liberating customers can be the cornerstone of programs to disrupt legacy brands.
Two options for the brand agenda
As noted above, there are two end points on the brand agenda spectrum.
- Contain the customer
- Liberate the customer
The direction a company takes in its agenda strategy will determine how its brand creates customers, and what the brand can accomplish, near-term and long-term. Different brand agendas will produce radically different customer outcomes, and business outcomes. Your brand agenda is also your customer agenda.
The traditional “contain the customer” approach
Brand agendas to contain the customer are at the heart of many traditional brands. In fact, “containing the customer” is still a mainstream brand approach. This approach typically manifests itself in the following brand actions:
- Capture customer attention with massive media campaigns
- Rely heavily on emotional triggers as brand drivers
- Transform brand experience into a spectacle or a “show”
- Construct elaborate myths to replace reality
- Use symbols, icons and images to focus customer beliefs
- Inculcate passive customer behavior
- Use rewards programs to foster brand “loyalty”
Brand strategies to contain the customer are often found in commodity markets, in mature industries, and in markets with low innovation.
The “contain the customer” paradigm
From the customer containment perspective, the whole purpose of a brand is to help catch and contain customers. Ideally, it’s to lock customers in for life, so their world view never ventures outside the brand aura. The brand becomes a virtual corral or silo, where an artificial reality keeps its subjects in thrall.
The “contain the customer” paradigm entails changing the nature of customers as well. Customers cease being market equals and potential innovation partners in a value network. Instead, they’re relegated to the status of passive “consumers,” where their consumption can be managed. This is one reason why traditional brands often devote considerable resources to brand spectacle, symbols, icons, emotional drivers and rewards. These are the artificial stimuli for kept consumers.
The high price of a customer containment agenda
A brand agenda to contain the customer comes at a price, however. It replaces brand value with brand spectacle. By ignoring customer intelligence and initiative, it also restricts the value that customers can add to the brand. In addition, it slows innovation to a crawl. The brand acts as a dam against idea flow. Internally, it holds back engineers and others whose new product ideas might “make waves” in the placid waters of containment. The omnipresent fear is that somewhere, somehow, someone will puncture the brand wall and the once-captive “consumers” will be heading elsewhere.
Companies with containment brand agendas often resemble fiefdoms or plantations in how they think, and in how they operate. And this, of course, presents great opportunities for disruptor brands.
Disruptor brands aim to liberate the customer
“Liberate the customer” is the brand agenda of companies with innovative, disruptor brands. Their aim is to undercut incumbent brands by delivering superior brand value and associated freedoms. These brands intend to free the customer from current brand dependencies and lock-ins, which can impose a virtual lock-down on the customer’s ability to move forward.
Disruptor brands are “liberation brands.”
Note, however, that not every company can sustain a brand agenda of customer liberation. Such an agenda requires a company to be highly innovative, agile and resolutely focused on delivering customer value. It also demands that a company be platform-driven, because brand platforms are the best mechanism for growing customers from one brand level to the next. Instead of imposing a brand corral on their customers, liberation brands elevate customers to progressively higher levels through a sequence of platforms in progressively richer markets.
Liberate your customers to create new value
Liberation brands may seem counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t they be giving away the customers their brands created? The answer to this question is, “No, they would not, because they operate in a totally different context than containment brands.” Liberation brands free their customers from brand backwaters so they can team with those customers to create new market value. By teaming with customers, liberation brands transcend the static “capture and contain” ethos that hobbles traditional brands. They raise brands to a context of dynamic collaboration which is rich in market opportunities.
Part of the brand logic behind customer liberation is that the brand is no longer a company-imposed veil, silo or corral. Instead, the brand becomes a form of value network that enables companies and customers to join forces for mutual gain. It is a sequence of platforms for growing customers to richer forms of living, where their new sets of needs will be met by a company’s innovation roadmap.
Elements of a brand agenda to liberate customers
In coming posts I’ll discuss the elements of a brand agenda that can disrupt traditional brands by delivering new forms of value to customers. This will be an agenda that frees customers to be more proactive, so they can add value back to the brand.