Archive for April, 2011

Brands as collaborative strategies

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

By their very nature brands are collaborative strategies. They’re the products of companies and their customers, a joint effort. Being “strategic”  they are more than stylized sales stimulants, a matter of mere messaging. Their aim is to change the game by changing the customer. At a minimum brands are collaborations in context and collaborations in productivity.

Brands as collaborations in context

As collaborations in context the brand and its customers work from a shared platform of vision and values. Their mutual goal is to enrich their shared context, extend it, make it more resilient, make it more creative, and ultimately make it more relevant and satisfying. The brand may lead, but it needs customer interaction and collaboration to compete the context. The brand becomes relevant when it makes its customers relevant.

Brands as collaborations in productivity

Brands are also collaborations in productivity, where the brand aims to make itself more productive by enabling its customers to be more productive themselves. The brand advances its customers beyond the reach of competitors, and as it does it relies on customer insight,  initiative, and innovation to add value back to the brand, advancing the brand in new directions. Customers benefit by no longer being held back by the constraints of mediocre companies and brands.

Historical framework

How did brands arrive at the point of collaboration? They didn’t start that way. I’ve set forth an historical framework on the evolution of brands to the current phase of brands as enablers, where collaboration strategies are paramount. You can read it in Brand evolution: from mark, to media to means.

Creating customers as a collaborative strategy

Brands create customers using collaborative strategies. Or, I should say, “Brands create the strongest and most dynamic customers using collaborative strategies.” The goal in creating customers is to:

  1. Create the customers to drive the business forward
  2. Create customers beyond the reach of competitors
  3. Create customers who add value back to the brand

That last item requires deep collaboration between a company and its customers. A brand runs on customer feet, and customers can take a brand into fertile new territories the brand would never have discovered on its own.

You can read more about strategies for creating customers here and here.

The brand as customer-focused application

In my view, the best way to build the collaborative strength of a brand is to develop the brand as a customer focused application. In this approach the brand is not a campaign nor a “communication.” It’s a set of concepts, tools and processes that help customers do what they need to do to become more proactive and more productive in the world. I’ve described this approach in detail here and here.

Brand engagement as collaboration

Brand engagement is another form of strategic collaboration. While “brand engagement” is often defined as a means of getting the customer’s attention, or persuading the customer to buy, usually in some aspect of “messaging,” that approach is hardly strategic. It usually reduces the brand to a brand of advertising, and “messaging” leaves little room for collaboration.

In a more strategic approach the brand would engage customers to move them forward, beyond the confines of the status quo, to a market space where customers could be more proactive, and more enabled to add value back to the brand. For more details on the strategic approach to brand engagement see How to define “brand engagement.

A “belief system” isn’t that collaborative

Brands can attempt to define and propagate “belief systems,” as if the brand were a kind of secular religion, with customers as mesmerized “believers” who blindly buy the brand. Unfortunately, this approach easily becomes a one-way form of propaganda, where doctrine and belief are the rule, and customers told what to think. There is little collaboration in this scenario. It is mostly a dead-end enterprise. I have written about the downsides of this approach in Some brands go medieval on their customers.



Brands, storytelling and product development

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Writing in UX Magazine Sarah Doody recently discussed Why we need storytellers at the heart of product development. In my comments to Sarah’s insightful post I tried to take a step back (or up?) to frame both product development and storytelling in the context of brand strategy.

Here is what I said (with subheads now added for emphasis):

Product storytelling is a part of brand strategy


Thanks for this very informative post. What you call “product storytelling” is also part of brand strategy, and the function of “product storyteller” is usually performed by a brand strategist, or a brand developer. Just to clarify, the brand mission is to create the customers that drive the business forward. The process of “creating customers” involves leading customers on a brand journey that advances customers to richer realms of living. Customers need new perspectives and new experiences to discover these realms (through the product and the brand), hence the importance of storytelling.

Storytelling is not “spinning tales”

Of course, by “storytelling” we don’t mean “spinning tales.” Storytelling is not promotion. It’s a shared story from a shared journey, co-created between the product and customers. In the best of stories, the company and its customers are on the same page, writing it together.

The brand is an application to create value

People often assume that brands are some kind of window dressing or meta context applied when a product is ready for market. Actually, the most critical brand decisions are made during product development. The brand is an application to create value that should be fully embedded into the product from the get-go. UX is a very big part of this value, of course. A brand developer should be working side-by-side with product developers to ensure that the chosen product strategy is also the best customer strategy.

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The brand as story enabler

From a brand perspective, the bottom line is that the brand enables customers to create and tell their own stories. The brand isn’t in the business of telling stories as a form of persuasion. It’s a platform for customer stories, where brand experience and brand interactions enable customers to explore and share new contexts of being and doing.



A brand is not a lure (and customers aren’t fish)

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Brands that lack strategy often position themselves as lures to catch customers, as if customers were fish in the sea and brands were a higher form of trolling, the perfect shiny bait with fetching face and hooks aplenty. Alas, a brand is not a lure. And customers aren’t fish.

Customers aren’t fish; brands aren’t lures

Brands fall into a strategic trap when they cast themselves as lures. Brands that try to catch customers like fish can’t create them as brand partners, and creating customers is what confers strategic advantage. Through your brand you create the customers that will drive the business forward. By developing your brand as a customer-focused application (here and here), the customers you create can help you create new markets. They return value back to the brand. By freeing customers from the hooks of mediocrity, the hooks of convention, and the hooks of competitors, your brand can turn them into the proactive partners you need so that you flourish together.

And brand touchpoints aren’t hooks

Please note that just as brands aren’t lures, brand touchpoints aren’t hooks. Brand touchpoints are discrete brand/customer interactions that deliver (or co-create) value. We carefully craft them in strategies to advance  customers beyond the reach of competitors—by delivering uniquely meaningful experience that competitors can’t match. The best touchpoints are transformative: they upgrade the identity of customers to new levels, so there’s no turning back to lesser modes of existence. Bottom line: the goal of touchpoints is to move customers forward, not to catch them with hooks. (See: How to define brand engagement.)

The mission of a brand is to teach customers to fish

The fishing metaphor is an apt one for brands, however—if we use the right context. The famous Chinese proverb gives us a clue:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Ergo, we use the brand to teach customers to fish. “Fish” metaphorically, of course. The brand mission is to free customers from constraints, and to advance customers farther and faster than they can advance themselves. We develop brands to enable customers to be more self-actualized, more proactive, more productive, more creative and to be more engaged with life. The more a brand enables its customers, the more the customers enable the brand.

Teaching customers to fish changes the game

When we teach customers to fish we are changing the brand game from all those mediocre brands who position customers as fish, and who design their brands as lures. Instead of the brand being a (one-way) hook, it becomes a cultural enabler. In effect, we are changing the brand game by changing the customer. Customers can repay us many times over with new ideas, experiences  and initiatives that we can fold back into the brand.


Image credit: Wikipedia