We don’t often think of brands as “incubators,” but incubating customers turns out to be a critical part of the brand mission. As a matter of fact, it’s strategically vital.
The logic of incubating customers
Let’s begin by observing, first and foremost, that brands are creative partnerships between companies and their customers. They’re a team effort, bottom-up as much as top-down. As such, brands have a vested interest in incubating as many energetic, diverse and free-thinking customers as possible. These are customers who can push the product envelope and the brand envelope into new forms, formats and markets. In so doing, they add value back to the brand from a dozen different directions, and help drive the business forward.
As warm and fuzzy as “incubation” might sound, brands incubate customers for reasons that are strictly strategic. The payback from incubating customers is competitive advantage. Your goal in incubating customers is twofold. You want customers who can:
- Augment your R&D
- Carry your business into new markets where competitors can’t follow.
The customers that your brand incubates today may drive your strategic platforms of tomorrow. By incubating customers your brand becomes a means of innovation, organically developing new contexts of product and service value.
The incubator model: an innovation platform
There’s a very specific brand vision behind the incubation process. That vision understands that customers are much more than mere “buyers” of products. They’re potential innovation partners who can pay bottom-line dividends far into the future. Thus, we employ an incubator model that’s much more than heat lamps and a comfy nest. In brands we incubate innovation, and we design the brand as an innovation platform for customers. (Brands belong in the innovation department far more than they belong in the marketing department.)
Brands as innovation tools
Brands are, of course, the premier tools to create (and incubate) customers. Brands enjoy this special status because they encompass creative, social, personal, emotional and moral dimensions. These are all potential innovation levers. This special scope grants brands a transcendent power to transform customer lives—in the right directions if the brand is morally and socially grounded.
A reference model: Y Combinator
One reference model for brand builders is that of startup incubators, the boutique companies who help fledgling entrepreneurs turn raw ideas into business. Treat your customers as brand entrepreneurs, because that’s what they want to be, and that’s you need them to be. A useful model to examine in this regard is the successful business incubator Y Combinator. Brands would do well to learn from their vision and focus.