As stated in the name of this blog, the mission of brands is to create customers. Before we can create a customer, however, we first have to design one. In this post I’ll touch on what “creating a customer” means, and then follow with an overview of the customer design process.
In broad brushstrokes, the enterprise of brands is to 1) design the customers who will lead the business forward, and 2) create those customers through the many applications, programs and initiatives in our brand toolkit. And yes, we design our customers to win.
What “creating a customer” really means
When a business makes a sale, it does not automatically “create a customer.” It merely creates a transaction. A transaction is not a customer.
Creating a customer means connecting the customer to his or her passion or potential through the brand, in a way that fosters a mutually beneficial relationship. For brands, creating customers is a multi-tiered process of brand applications, platforms and programs, with specific deliverables across many stages, advancing the customer along strategic pathways, and engaging the customer as an innovation partner. It’s a strategic act of market creation rather than a quick ka-ching, a pimped out package, or a superficial campaign.
Building strong customers
Before we can begin the customer creation process, however, we must design the customer that we intend to create. When we say we want to “build strong brands,” what we really mean is that we want to “build strong customers.” Strong customers are better allies than weak, credulous customers who act like sheep. One of our first design questions, therefore, is “Where do we put the muscles?” We don’t leave customer fitness to chance.
We’ll be designing a “high performance customer”
What we’ll be designing is a “high performance customer.” This is similar to the concept of lead user, except that a high performance customer is more of a “leverager” than a user. He or she can carry your brand down new innovation avenues, or across categories into entirely new markets. For example, Apple, Google and Facebook enable high performance customers by opening their software to third-party applications, resulting in dozens of new mobile apps and desktop applications, new business opportunities, and new avenues for growth.
Do you want an ecosystem that looks like plankton, or Paris?
Everyone wants their brand to be the center of an ecosystem. How you design your customers will determine if your ecosystem looks like plankton, or Paris. If you design your customers to be “consumers,” (or, God forbid, “shoppers”) the creative equivalent of lemmings, you’ll be a brand of lemmings, fated to end at the nearest cliff. It’s a case of value in, value out. If you design a passive customer, or envision your brand playing to an “audience,” you’ll be laying the groundwork for a passive, static brand.
The strategic importance of customer design
Strategically, you want to design customers who will advance beyond the reach of competitors. These are customers who will drive your business forward, returning value back to the brand as they advance themselves—and the brand—to higher levels. In essence, you are designing customers to be one of your most powerful competitive weapons. Not because they’re slavishly “loyal,” but because they’re relentlessly innovative, fueled by your vision and your deliverables.
Develop your customers as you develop your employees
Companies invest huge sums to develop their employees to be creative and productive problem solvers. A company’s brand is its tool to develop customers along the same path. A brand that desires dumb, irrational customers insults its own employees. Eventually it will degenerate into a brand of bureaucracy, where employees are slaves to process and serfs of departmental fiefdoms, slowing innovation to a crawl.
Designing dynamic customers
The brand challenge is to design creative, dynamic customers who will have the drive, cunning and courage to embrace and run with the forthcoming products on our product development roadmap. While the product development team is crafting the next great innovation, the brand team will be designing the customers who will do something totally unique and amazing with it. In this sense, the brand completes the product vision.
Designing “pull” into customers
In the customer design process we design “pull” into our customers of tomorrow, so we won’t have to bear the agony and expense of trying to “push” our products upon them. This design ability relies on a deep ethnographic understanding of customers themselves, plus the brand vision to discern new ways for customers to grow. With our brands we are cultivating an almost rampant customer garden, much more in the style of John Chapman than Jethro Tull.
Developing the holistic customer model
When begin to design our customer we can set aside our Wacom tablets for a while. We’ll need to focus on a larger customer canvas, one with more texture. Brands are holistic expressions of company and customer, and the first design step is to develop a holistic model of our current customer, including what makes him or her “complete. We then map out the customer’s next iteration through the brand. He or she will be a new being with a greater sphere of autonomous action compared to current customers. In this process we’ll design customers for new ways of being and doing, within richer forms of living. All of these will leave current competitors far behind.
In essence, we’ll be designing a “higher order” customer who will be “beyond” future products from our competitors. In other words, we’re designing customers who will shut our competitors out—on the assumption that only our products will be worthy of this customer’s higher-order demands. Does the iPod customers want to buy CD’s? Nope.
The customer template
Typically, we’ll be designing a template of the customer we want as our innovation partner two or three years down the road. “Template” is the key term here. We’re not trying to force fit the customer into a pre-defined mold. We want to create a customer platform of more autonomy, insight and imagination, so our customer can be more proactive through our brand. We leave lots of headroom for independent customer growth. We’re designing a proactive teammate, not a rank “follower.”
Developing customer design criteria
The customer design criteria will vary by business category and customer type. In general, though, we want to maximize the customer freedoms delivered by our brand. The more freedoms the brand delivers, the more the customer can excel, and the greater value the customer can return to the business as a partner in a brand value network. If our company is geared to innovate, a liberation brand model may be appropriate.
Here are some general questions we can ask to help develop specific customer design criteria:
- What is currently holding our customers back?
- How can our customers be “un-packaged” from current constraints?
- What is their immediate pain?
- What is their strategic pain? Their missed opportunities?
- What kinds of freedoms do our customers need?
- How can we make our customers more productive?
- What new skills, capabilities, values, sensibilities and attitudes do they need?
- How can our brand become a platform for continuous customer growth?
- How can our brand advance customers beyond the reach of competitors?
- How can our brand create the customers who will drive our business forward?
The brand as an engine for customer growth
Since our brand will function as an engine for customer growth, advancing the customer to a point where he/she will be ready for our next level of innovation, we don’t want to leave any potential growth avenues unexplored. Thus, we also develop our brand to advance the customer’s:
- Personal growth
- Social growth
- Economic growth
- Spiritual growth
- Creative growth
We need to get a handle on these elements in the design phase because the customer creation process is one of leading, learning and teaming that involves the whole brand, and the whole customer. A brand that aspires to market leadership must first demonstrate customer leadership. And a brand leads from the customer up.
Design the customer that you’d want to be
As a general rule, the customer you’re designing will be more capable, more proactive, and more independent than you are today. In other words, design the customer that you’d want to be. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes, just like they do at Apple.
When you’re designing the whole customer, nothing is off limits. That’s the challenge, and the thrill.