Archive for the 'Creating Customers' Category

AOL as a brand of inertia

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Brands of inertia are deadly for companies, and their customers. A brand becomes a brand of inertia when it’s too set in its ways to change course. The brand acts as a  one-trick, one-track monolith that sees the future in terms of the past. We typically find brands of inertia in companies that commanded an innovation years ago but now are happy to coast, fixated on cash rather than customers. They’ve become a means to extract value, rather than create it.

AOL as a brand of inertia

AOL would seem to be a brand of inertia based on this recent piece in the Economist. Its antiquated dial-up Internet service is a dead end, but AOL depends on these customers for revenue, including a “substantial number” paying for a service they don’t really need. The old AOL business is profitable, but the old brand ethos hasn’t helped AOL reinvent itself, which it desperately needs to do.

Brands of inertia aim to harvest customers, not create them

AOL would not be alone as a brand of inertia, of course. Some companies never feel the need to innovate if they think they can make easy money by freezing the brand—and their customers—in time and space. As brands of inertia they aim to harvest customers, not create them. Customers are the cash cow, and the brand is their corral.

Dialing down the brand

Brands of inertia often dial themselves down to the least demanding (or least informed) customers, those willing to pay for the same product year after year out of sheer habit (or sheer ignorance). As the Economist notes, some customers may not realize that they’re paying for a marginal product or service. They don’t know any better, but as far as the brand is concerned, that’s perfectly fine. It’s money in the bank. Brands of inertia don’t rock the boat. And they don’t like ideas that rock the boat.

A brand of inertia condemns the company to inertia

There’s a fatal downside to brands of inertia. They condemn the company to inertia, stifling creativity and innovation, especially on the customer front. Opportunities are grasped elsewhere. Good ideas go elsewhere. Innovators (and employees) go elsewhere. Eventually customers wise up and flock to better brands.




Notes on “totalitarian” brands

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

[This is an updated version of a July 11, 2008 post called Totalitarian Brands.]

An article that every brand builder should read is Steven Heller’s  Branding Youth in the Totalitarian State in Design Observer. The article is based on Heller’s 2008 book: Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State. (The book is now in paperback.)

The article raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relationships between propaganda and brands, and on the sometimes “totalitarian” nature of brands themselves. As I see it, the key questions are as follows:

  1. What is the “totalitarian” brand model?
  2. Are brands a form of propaganda? Do they follow its rules’?
  3. Do brands need “true believers?” How do true believers add value to the brand?
  4. What are the strategy downsides of brands conceived and executed as propaganda, or as “totalitarian?” What other brand models could disrupt them?

I’ve also discussed some of these elements in the various posts referenced  below.

Definition of “totalitarian” brand

For this discussion I define a “totalitarian” brand as follows: “A totalitarian brand is a brand that totally subsumes the customer into the brand, erasing the individual and the individual’s capacity for proactive, independent action.” In other words, in a totalitarian brand approach the brand wants to impose its will upon the customer. The customer becomes a tool, and a creature of the brand. The brand intends to “own” the customer—body, mind and soul. ((And wallet.) This is a model of domination instead of (for example) partnership.

The customer as “true believer”

I would also suggest that a totalitarian brand approach is one that wants customers to be “true believers.” The brand seeks mindless followers—perhaps because mindful followers might see through it. I would define “true believer” as a one-dimensional person fanatically devoted to a cause, an organization or to another person. A true believer is a follower with a capital “F.” In the eyes of the true believer, the leader can do no wrong. And thus, true believers add no value to the brand. They don’t interact with it to make it better. They don’t help it to adapt. In fact, they typically magnify its shortcomings. A brand with true believers typically doesn’t innovate, or innovates narrowly, and may be its own worst enemy. True believers are not strategic.

True believers and “yes” men

It seems to me that a brand of true believers may be just as ineffective as a company of “yes” men. By saying “Yeah!” (or “Yes!) to everything it won’t be productive strategically. There’s no creative interaction. No questions. No feedback. No alternate views. It may be that true believers are in fact the products of yes men, who are simply cloning themselves at a lower level. In contrast, a strong brand is strong because it’s in constant creative ferment, continuously questioning and testing itself to remain a step ahead of the world. Yes men and true believers only slow it down.

Two brand models: containment vs. liberation

As part of this discussion we can assess two different models of brands:  a persuasion or propaganda model, and a contrasting liberation model. A persuasion or propaganda model would try to shape customer thoughts and feelings so as to capture, contain and control customers, to keep them in place so they continue to be “loyal” to the brand and purchase the product at desired price points.

In contrast, a liberation model of brands aims to free customers to be more proactive for themselves, on the premise that greater sales will flow from a more proactive and productive customer culture, where customers are active players in product development rather than a passive audience. This model assumes that a company can gain market advantage via product and service innovations that create a more proactive culture, where customers leave behind old paradigms. It’s a method that uses customer initiative to disrupt competitors. Apple shows that it can be done, and quite profitably, too.



When shoes are an accessory to the sock

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

While waiting to enter La Musée d’Orsay in Paris I noticed some interesting shoes on a young woman in the next line over. The shoes were shaped like . . .  piano keys! But wait! Those were socks, not shoes. The shoes were cut so low that they served as platforms for socks, giving the wearer great latitude in style combinations. In a role reversal, the shoe was an accessory to the sock. With one pair of low-cut shoes like these you could style-out with 10 pairs of eye-popping socks, giving the effect of 10 pairs of shoes. Plus socks offer so many more design possibilities. And they’re cheaper. And with statement socks like these you could do a nifty counter-point with a scarf: theme, color, etc.

“Footwear” redefined

In a nutshell, making the shoe an accessory to the sock redefines “footwear.” The “foot” now includes the whole foot. By providing less shoe, you create a larger product canvas, and a bigger market.

Brand lesson: create opportunities for customers

If I can derive a brand lesson from this shoe-as-accessory-to-the-sock example it would be this: develop your brand to create opportunities for your customers. Instead of offering a range of static choices, give them dynamic platforms so they can create and re-create themselves anew. By opening new dimensions for them, you can open new markets for yourself.


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

Brand strategy: Create your entire brand as a customer-focused application

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

In this and follow-up posts I’ll propose that the best way to develop brands is to design, structure and deploy them as customer-focused applications. Yes, you should create your entire brand as an application. “An application of what?” you might ask? In a nutshell, your brand is an application of your vision and values. You apply it in a brilliantly crafted program of wisdom, culture, street smarts and tools to advance your customers to richer realms of living, far beyond the reach of competitors. Your brand becomes an application for your customers to succeed, and to take you with them. Their success is your success.

Brands are customer-focused applications for getting things done

It’s always been apparent to me that brands are really customer-focused applications–for helping customers get things done–far more than they’re calculated  sets of  symbols, slogans and stories to influence how customers think or feel. (I began writing about personal brand applications way back in 2007.) As I see it, we develop brands to help customers achieve outcomes that they can’t achieve through products and services alone. Thus, a “brand”  is much more than an identity, a stylized sales stimulant, a promise or a reputation. It’s a deliverable that acts as a supra-product method of creating value, limited only by the brand imagination of the company.

Notably, the brand is a form of innovation rather than a belief system or persuasion package. Critically, it’s an interactive application, too, one that enables the brand to team with customers in the value creation process. As I’ll discuss  below, brand  applications are essential building blocks for brand  platforms, and for building strategic brand experiences.

What (exactly) is a brand application?

A brand application is a method (a series of steps, guidelines, interfaces, interactions, innovations and revelations) to advance customers to richer realms of living. It may accompany products and services, or it may be a framework for them. The brand is the operative vision and value stream. It lays out where the company is going, and the rewards for joining in. The brand journey marks the path.

The goal of the application approach is to make customers better off in a way that ultimately disrupts competitors. As part of the application approach we create customers (here and here) through value innovation in ways that competitors can’t match. Our customers win, and so do we.

For strategic purposes the entire brand can be developed as a unified, customer-focused application (as I propose). Within the brand itself, however, there will be many discrete brand applications. These function like brand programs. Customer service is a brand application. A warranty is a brand application. Note, though, that customer service at Zappos is the whole brand as an application.

Brands gain strategic power as applications

Brands gain strategic power when they’re developed as applications. In traditional brand approaches brands are typically a form of communications. They emerge as calculated messages and meanings to promote sales and customer loyalty. In contrast, the brand-as-application is a comprehensive, collaborative, multi-threaded and multifaceted means of helping customers change their world in reality, not “in the mind.” As an application, the brand emerges as a strategic means of action, a change agent and deliverable on par with products and services. As applications brands stand to be far more productive than a brand “essence” showcased as a glorious–yet static–identity.

Your entire brand is an application—inside and outside the company

One of the strengths of the brand application approach is that your brand becomes a coherent and consistent method of value creation inside and outside the company. You are one company, one application, one brand. The brand becomes your operating mode rather than a media construct. As an application it fuses strategic vision, employee creativity, quality, productivity, and desired customer outcomes. Brand applications lay the foundation for a company “Way” of unique vision and values. Conversely, when the brand becomes “image” instead of application, we wind up with sad examples like BP.

A big difference in brand approach

When we develop brands as applications we take a dramatically different approach than used for conventional brands. Here are the main differences:

  1. Brands are agents of transformation, a means to change the world. They’re not sets of “meanings” to program customer behavior.
  2. The brand goal is to innovate so we can advance customers into richer realms of living where our brand gains market advantage.
  3. Our brand is part of our innovation strategy. It’s a method for creating value through customers.  Brand strategy becomes innovation strategy.
  4. The brand team joins the innovation team. They pump brand intelligence into new products and services ab ovo.
  5. Customers become strategic innovation partners, not just “buyers.” They are valued for their insights, intelligence and initiative far more than for their “loyalty.”
  6. There is less need for brand symbols, slogans and stories, and no need for brand magic and miracles. Applications create new realities–an infinitely better result.
  7. There is little need to “position” the brand. The application goal is to position customers to win–in new market spaces where customers and company can prosper. The application is self-positioning.
  8. The era of the brand icon is over. Icons don’t innovate. Applications do.
  9. There is less need for ad agencies. There is more need for app agencies.
  10. The brand ceiling leaps skyward. It becomes: Company Potential  X Customer Potential. New brand avenues abound.

Innovative brands already use the application approach

The good news is that many of today’s innovative brands (young and old) already grasp what brands can accomplish as applications. In many respects their brands largely function as end-to-end applications as they focus on delivering market-leading customer experiences. They build their brands outward from their vision, values and core operating principles. Their brands begin as internal applications (operating policies and programs) to produce distinctive  products and  services. Extending brand applications to customers is a natural  follow-through of what makes the company tick. In the larger scheme of things, the brands of Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, FedEx, Costco, Nordstrom and Zappos function as applications. They advance their customers beyond the reach of competitors. They are more focused, more coherent, more disciplined  and more distinctive because of it. And customers can tell the  difference.



A brand is only as good as its developers

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Brands are in the midst of monumental change, and a key aspect of that change is that brands are becoming digital and digitized. Brands need software developers–and good ones–or their feet will be nailed to the floor as the rest of the world moves on.

Brands in the digital era are also collaborative, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, online forums and the like, and a brand’s collaborators are also its developers. They have a hand in its future, too.

Nurturing developers to build the best brands

It thus pays for a brand to nurture its developers with capable development tools and a process that makes development (relatively) easy. For software companies–who have the inside track on brands of the future–the standard developer toolset is the SDK, the Software Development Kit. Developers need a solid SDK to create solid apps. If a software company falls short in its SDK, it risks losing its developers and potentially, its brand.

A developer’s complaint against RIM and the PlayBook

Are digital tablets important to the future of business and culture? Absolutely. It’s therefore news when a developer details a long list of factors that make developing applications for a particular tablet unnecessarily difficult. One such developer complaint surfaced this week:  “You Win, RIM! (An Open Letter To RIM’s Developer Relations).”  In it a developer cites major (and unnecessary) obstacles that block the application development path for the spiffy new RIM BlackBerry PlayBook, leaving  the developer to throw up his hands in despair.

The complaint is written with the passion that builds brands, or tosses them aside. Here’s how it begins:

You win. I concede defeat. I no longer want to attempt developing an app for the PlayBook. Are you happy now? Surely you must be. Considering how terribly designed the entire process is, from the registration right through to loading an app into the simulator, I can only assume that you are trying to drive developers away by inconveniencing them as much as humanly possible.

Brand touchpoints critical to developers

The entire complaint is worth reading for the light it shines on brand touchpoints critical to software development. These touchpoints are like building blocks. If they don’t fit together quickly and securely, building the desired app becomes problematic. RIM certainly knows this, too.

Did the RIM brand team vet the PlayBook SDK? It is certainly a brand-building document.


Did BP fail its brand? Or did the brand fail BP?

Thursday, July 15th, 2010


In a previous post, Brand lessons from the BP oil disaster, I framed my discussion by asking: Did BP fail its brand; or did the brand fail BP? In this post I’ll explore these two failure modes in greater depth. A brand failure like BP’s might arise from using the wrong brand model, which no amount of execution can save, or by employing a correct brand model but failing to implement it properly, especially at the management level.

What caused the BP brand to go off track?

I’m looking for causal factors that might explain why the BP brand went off track, resulting in the blowout disaster and massive pollution. Future hearings, investigations and court cases should provide us with much more data than available now. This is a preliminary snapshot, nothing more. My goal is to posit some basic brand rules applicable to all brands, in whatever business or organization. I’m using BP as a provisional case study.

(And to those who might argue, “You know, you really can’t separate brand strategy, brand model and brand execution” I’d say I agree philosophically, but I’m forcing such a separation here for analysis purposes.)

How can a brand “fail the company?”

The brand itself can fail the company when it’s the wrong brand approach for the business. This is a brand model/brand strategy issue, as I see it, in which a brand can fail the company in two ways. The first is when the brand model can’t advance the company and its customers beyond the reach of competitors. The brand doesn’t create competitive advantage, and the business suffers as a result. In the second (and far more serious) case, the brand fails to optimize internal operations, and in so doing actually increases business risk. The result may be a quality breakdown, or even a business breakdown. In both the first and second cases, a company has the wrong brand model for the job.

The perils of an “image campaign”

My “sense” is that brands most often fail the company when the brand is positioned as a stylized sales stimulant, in an “image campaign” of advertising and promotion. The resulting brand isn’t part of the meat and bones of the business. When stressed the core business can founder, with notable weak points being innovation and quality.

Signs that a brand might fail the company

Here are some specific signs (as I see them) where a brand might be in danger of failing the company:

  1. The “brand” is defined as a media campaign that promotes the brand identity. It exists as part of the company’s persuasion and promotion package. (E.g., “Beyond Petroleum.”)
  2. The brand doesn’t state what it values, and why. (And the brand is no guide to what’s right and what’s wrong inside the company.)
  3. The brand makes no commitments.
  4. The brand doesn’t define a clear chain of accountability.
  5. The brand is largely decoupled from day-to-day operations. As a brand, it’s mostly symbols and slogans. It is not a working brand.
  6. The brand relies heavily on myths and make believe, further divorcing it from day-to-day realities. (The brand also plays little role in innovation, quality and value creation.)
  7. There’s nothing visceral in the brand for employees (and customers). It has a “Wizard of Oz” feel to it. Lots of smoke and mirrors, and a very big curtain.

How can a company “fail the brand?”

Let’s now look at the other side of the question: How can a company “fail the brand?” Here we assume a brand that’s properly structured within an effective brand strategy. The brand is OK, but the company prevents it from achieving its objectives.

Signs where a company is in danger of failing its brand

Here are some specific signs (as I see them) where a company might be in danger of failing its brand:

  1. Management believes that the brand’s sole purpose is to make the company look good. The brand has no internal value beyond the “image appeal” it can generate externally.
  2. Management positions itself above the brand. It doesn’t exemplify brand values in its actions, nor does it lead the brand by example.
  3. No one in management is accountable to the brand. (Or accountable to brand values.)
  4. The brand does not fuel the corporate culture. It’s decoupled from business decisions.
  5. The brand is treated as a form of communication, rather than a method of optimizing operations. It’s kept as a messaging layer.
  6. The brand team (if there is one) has no authority. It’s marginalized into a feel-good adjunct of marketing and corporate PR.
  7. Management treats the brand as a financial “asset.” In this accounting mode the brand loses its position as a core value-set and tool for best practices.

And in BP’s case, perhaps “both”

In my previous post on BP (link above) I suggested that, based on preliminary indications, BP’s brand failure in the Deepwater Horizon blowout was probably a combination of both failure modes: a brand that failed the company, and BP management that failed the brand. Maybe more of the first than the second,. In time more facts will help clarify what actually transpired prior to the blowout, and may reveal other brand issues as well.

Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue — Flickr


Intel fabs a customer

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Interesting article in Ars Technica on how Intel employs ethnographers, anthropologists and other social scientists to help it define reference sets of customers for its new System on a Chip (SOC) designs. This is a smart move by Intel to position itself in the customer creation process. Intel fabs a customer context with each SOC design. (SOC’s are the heart of handhelds and similar digital devices and will drive the future of portable computing.)

(I say “fabs a customer” because Intel is famed as the world’s greatest fabricator of microchips.)

Creating a customer—by proxy

Intel doesn’t make consumer goods, and it doesn’t sell its chips to you and me. It sells them to manufacturers who put them in their products. So how does Intel make sure that its SOC’s will meet the needs of real consumer markets—or help create those markets?

From the Ars Technica article:

The ethnographers essentially stand in for OEM devicemakers, in that they provide Intel with market-oriented input into the kinds of products that the company should be designing SOC’s for. In other words, the user experience researchers can function as substitute “customers,” so that Intel can iterate its products internally in conversation with a kind of “market.”

The end result . . .  is a set of “reference experiences”—basically complete, market-ready products with everything up to and including the interface already designed by Intel and run internally through a product development process that includes ethnographers. These products are then labeled as “reference designs” and offered to what are essentially resellers, who can either take the whole thing, re-badge it, and go to market, or replace parts of it with some of their own engineering.

To me, this is creating a customer by proxy, an enlightened marketing initiative. The result is that Intel’s SOC’s are really more than “systems on a chip.” They’re markets on a chip. Or, when fine tuned, they’re potentially customers on a chip.

Is Intel destined to be an ingredient brand?

Is a powerhouse like Intel forever destined to be an ingredient brand, buried in someone else’s products, etched in cold silicon and never feeling the hot product passion from customer hands? I don’t think so. You’re an ingredient brand by choice. By using design ethnography Intel has migrated from being an ingredient in a device to being an ingredient in a customer context. That’s a monumental step upward. It points toward a growing capability to develop a full (passionate) consumer brand downstream—if that’s what Intel should want.