How to design a customer

As we all know from reading the banner at the top of this page, the mission of a brand 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” really means, and then follow with an overview of the customer design process.

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 your product, in a way that fosters a mutually beneficial relationship. For brands, creating customers is a multi-tiered process of 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 an investment in strategic creativity, rather than a quick ka-ching, a pimped out package, or a superficial campaign.

Building strong customers

Before you can begin the customer creation process, however, you have to design the customer that you 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, pusillanimous customers. One of our first design questions, therefore, is “Where do we put the muscles?” We don’t leave customer fitness to chance.

What you’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, Google and Yahoo enable high performance customers by opening their software to third-party applications, resulting in dozens of new business opportunities.

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.

The strategic importance of customer design

Strategically, you want to create the customers that will take your business to the next level. This means that you have to design dynamic customers who will have the drive, cunning and courage to embrace and run with the forthcoming products on your product development roadmap. While the product development team is crafting the next great widget, the brand team is designing the customer who will do something totally unique and amazing with it.

In the customer design process you design “pull” into your customers of tomorrow, so you won’t have to bear the agony and expense of trying to “push” your products upon them. This design ability relies on a deep ethnography of your customer set, plus the brand vision to discern new ways for customers to grow. You are cultivating a customer garden, much more in the style of John Chapman than Jethro Tull.

Developing the holistic customer model

You can tell your customer design team that they won’t need their Wacom tablets for a while. They’ll need to focus on larger customer parameters. Brands are holistic expressions of company and customer, and the first design step is to develop a holistic model of the next iteration of your customer. He or she will be a new being with a greater sphere of autonomous action compared to current customers. You’ll be designing a “higher order” customer who will be “beyond” future products from your competitors. Essentially, you are designing a customer to shut your competitors out—on the assumption that only your products will be worthy of this customer’s higher-order demands.

The customer template

Typically, you’ll be designing a template of the customer you want as your 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. What we’re trying to do is 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 teammate, not a rank “follower.” (Teammates add value; followers are a drag.)

Developing design criteria

The customer design criteria will vary by business category and customer type. In general, though, you want to maximize the freedoms delivered by your brand. The more freedom a customer enjoys through your offering, the more the customer can excel, and the greater value the customer can return to you as a partner in a brand value network. If your company is geared to innovate, a liberation brand model may be appropriate.

Here are some general questions we can ask to help develop specific design criteria:

  1. What is currently holding our customers back?
  2. How can our customers be “unpackaged” from current constraints?
  3. What is their immediate pain?
  4. What is their strategic pain?
  5. What are their missed opportunities?
  6. What kinds of freedoms do our customers need?
  7. How can we make our customers more powerful, and more proactive?
  8. What new skills, capabilities, values, sensibilities and attitudes do they need?
  9. What kind of customer growth trajectory can we design?
  10. How can our brand become a platform for continuous customer growth?

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 ask:

Through our combination of product and brand, what would create the greatest advance in the customer’s:

  1. Personal growth
  2. Social growth
  3. Economic growth
  4. Spiritual growth
  5. 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.

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.

When you’re designing the whole customer, nothing is off limits. That’s the challenge, and the thrill.