Archive for August, 2007

How brands create high-performance customers

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

This is another installment in our continuing series to breathe new life into brands. We start by flying right off a wave.

The brand goal: create high-performance customers

Yes, the goal of every brand is to create high-performance customers. Since your brand mission is to create the customers that will drive your business forward, the more active, high-performance customers you create, the farther your business can go. High-performance customers are just as important to your business as high performance employees. Strategically, they’re far more important to your brand than identity elements and media campaigns.

They add value back to the brand

Brands create high-performance customers so those customers can lead rich lives and add value back to the brand. We enable them, and they enable us. Together we ascend a delicious upward spiral, one that competitors can’t match. Creating high-performance customers thus becomes a strategic objective of the brand. The return value they contribute is the ultimate brand payoff.

In contrast, a brand that creates passive, low-performance customers is effectively creating a boat anchor for its business. Eventually, the business stops dead in the water, chained to a static base.

Defining “high-performance customer”

A high-performance customer is a customer who pushes the envelope of the product or service offered, and drives it to new applications and new uses. He or she is a customer who often creates new forms of meaning with the product or the brand, extending it and transforming it as they extend and transform themselves. This process can lead to a new brand context, or to an extended brand culture—and to additional levels of brand growth.

High-performance customers often interact with other customers and with the company, for feedback, tactical help and camaraderie. As they add new dimensions to the brand, they potentially create wider and/or deeper markets. Software mashups are a case in point, especially in the way those using Google maps have advanced the Google brand.

The high-performance customer is a close cousin to the “lead user” concept developed by MIT’s Eric von Hippel.

Competitive Advantage

Brands can use high-performance customers to help build competitive advantage. When a brand creates high-performance customers, the product gets better faster through customer initiative and innovation. These initiatives can translate into competitive advantage, especially as they uncover new product uses, under-served markets, or specialized market segments. (See the history of mountain bikes.) High-performance customers can be a source of real-time market research.

Brand Innovation

What you want from most from high-performance customers is brand innovation, new brand concepts and applications that you can assess and build back into your brand as structured platforms and programs. These will come from the edge, not the boardroom. While a skateboard maker would certainly want a major presence at championship events, the real fuel for its brand is found at the street.

High-performance customers differentiate your brand

High-performance customers can also help differentiate a brand. They can create new brand contexts, from the ground up. That’s what designers in desktop publishing did initially for Apple. Apple now uses that platform as a creative driver for its brand initiatives in portable digital devices, such as the iPad. (Of course, a brand has to manage this process; it’s not a matter of brand laissez faire.)

Examples of high-performance customers

The best way to create high-performance customers is to help them create themselves. Give them the tools and the parts and the freedoms to create a free-flowing culture around your product or service. It will be their culture, not yours. Your brand is the catalyst and enabler. The goal is brand diversity, not brand homogeneity.

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Customers advance the iPhone brand

Monday, August 13th, 2007


The best way to build your brand is to send it forth on the shoulders of customers. They can invent new brand value, and new brand applications, moving you into markets you never imagined.

Want your company logo to activate an iPhone button? Steven Frank has done it. (Unofficially, of course.)

Partners in the iPhone brand

Apple runs a tight brand ship, but Apple’s iPhone customers know where they want the iPhone to go—and they’re not waiting for Apple. They see themselves as partners in the iPhone brand, building it out in areas not yet implemented by Apple itself. For Apple, this is an immense (if sometimes dicey) brand strength. Dell, HP, Sony or Nokia can’t even come close—at least for now.

Reining in customer enthusiasm may at times become a brand problem. There’s an art to it—enough control, but not too much. The consolation is that when it is your problem, you’ve been doing something right. To minimize the downside, you have to know your customers, and give them the right innovation context in which to beaver away.

The iPhone Dev Wiki

iPhone customers who want to innovate ahead of Apple can consult the iPhone Dev Wiki, which is chock full of development tips. It says: “This is a place for people who want to make iPhone even more awesome than it is already out of the box.”

And:

This website is dedicated to finding additional uses for the iPhone by (legitimately) enabling its potential capabilities, and is a place for the community to share ideas, discoveries and solutions.

There are legal and warranty issues here, and iPhone customers are walking a fine line by pushing the brand ahead of the company. That they would assume these risks speaks to the value of the brand, to the high-performance customers it creates, and to the innovation platform that the brand represents.

The brand exponential

In previous posts I’ve said that a good way to define brand innovation is product potential X customer potential. Think of your customer as the exponential power of your brand—your brand to the nth power. Instead of merely “selling” to customers, you join with them to advance the product, and the brand. The customer exponent can create tremendous brand leverage.

A brand powered by Apple is formidable. A brand powered by Apple and its customers may be unstoppable.

Photo: ~stevenf

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As mass media dies, brands are born anew

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

If traditional mass media is headed for the grave, and with it mass market advertising, as Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield (pdf) and others soberly predict, what will happen to the thousands of brands built on a mass media foundation? Will they crater, too?

On the face of it, one might think that the demise of mass media and mass market advertising is bad news for brands. Actually, though, it’s the opposite. It’s a tremendous opportunity for brands to be born anew, fresher and more vibrant than ever.

Truth is, brands don’t need traditional mass media to survive. In fact, they may be better brands without it. Brands are a joint venture between companies and their customers. Intermediaries can get in the way.

Bob Garfield’s “Chaos Scenario”

Bob Garfield’s recent Chaos Scenario 2.0 — The Post Advertising Age makes a persuasive case for the decline of traditional mass media and mass market advertising. It’s a follow-up to his original Chaos Scenario of 2005, in which he laid out a grim future for the advertising industry in the emerging digital world. In Chaos Scenario 2.0 Bob introduces new evidence of forces disrupting traditional advertising. He foresees a world “in which marketing — and even branding — are conducted without much reliance on the 30-second spot or glossy spread.”

In short, digital innovations are providing new frameworks for companies to join with their customers, without the expense and the repetitive intrusions of mass media campaigns.

Companies are reclaiming their brands

Major brands have seen the writing on the wall for some time, and are exploring new forms of brand value, and new brand avenues to connect with customers. There’s a perception that the conventional mass media approach was beginning to hold brands back, that it was coming between brands and customers at a time when brands needed to be closer to customers than ever.

In a sense, companies are reclaiming their brands, dialing down broadcast messages and dialing up direct personal connections, to maximize interaction and value flow between company and customers.

Proctor & Gamble sets an example

One can see this thinking in Jim Stengel’s well-publicized initiatives at Proctor & Gamble. In a recent speech to advertising executives, Jim said:

Building relationships through our brands is the future of marketing. It’s not about new media models or new tools. It’s about engaging with people in a two-way relationship. It’s about seeking to understand the other person rather than trying to control their actions. Trying to control someone is no way to build a relationship—or grow market share long term. We have come to realize that at P&G.

That’s why we’re changing. That’s why we’re committed to building brands that stand for something meaningful to consumers rather than just “telling and selling.”

The end of brands as “messages”

I’d take Bob’s and Jim’s arguments a step further, and say that brands are undergoing their own radical change, and will soon bear little resemblance to the ad-driven, mass media brands that once defined brand practice. The message model of brands is on the way out. As it has evolved, it’s largely turned brands into the illusion business. This is a double trap that conditions companies to treat “consumers” as a passive audience, and then to churn out undistinguished products and rely on mass media “messaging” to make them seem special. The long-term result is the triumph of hype over innovation and value, with a loss of competitiveness, and customer trust.

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