Where Does Product End and Brand Begin?

By Robert Wallace July 18, 2017

You don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee. Coffee is what you walk out the door with, but it’s not what keeps you returning to Starbucks (or to another favorite coffee shop). Given the landscape of retailers brewing and selling what essentially amounts to the same commodity, the fact that we pledge our loyalty to one roaster over another is further proof that the coffee is not the “thing” we’re after.

Need more evidence? How about the price of a cup at Starbucks? There are plenty of cheaper options that are justas good and deliver the same effect, including making coffeeat home. But since coffee isn’t the thing, we’re willing to pay a premium. 

So what is the thing we seek if it’s not the product itself? It’s the experience and the promise of that experience delivered consistently. Starbucks gives us something emotionally that no other competitor can: a completely unique experience. Our favorite café pours more than a hot latte in our cup; it fills us up with emotional satisfaction.  

Whether it’s that first sip that brings a spark of joy, the sense of community, the way the employees engage with us or the soundtrack that plays in the store, successful companies create a consistent brand feel that gives extra life to the goods they sell. We may arrive at a business through its products or services because we have a need to fulfill in the moment, but we stay for the emotional connection. We keep coming back to a brand because to us it delivers on a promise that speaks to what’s important and makes us feel good at every touchpoint.

Emotions bridge the gap between product and brand, creating real connections with customers. Many believe a great product should sell itself, and so they focus on a few tangible features and benefits. But while a great product is essential, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Without a story or promise to bring the audience along and establish a deeper connection, customers won’t remain loyal.

"Emotions bridge the gap between product and brand, creating real connections with customers."

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The Main Character of Your Story: Customers

Customers are people, and great brands go into business to solve people’s problems. Stop solving the problem and you stop having customers. 

The taxi industry no longer meets the experience consumers want? Then there’s a market for an on-demand car transportation service that behaves differently. People don’t use Uber or Lyft because it gets them to their destination faster. Customers use Uber or Lyft because these brands understand everything they hate about taxis and do the exact opposite at every turn. 

Brands like Uber and Lyft take the time to understand what is important to today’s consumer and recreate the experience: clean, modern cars, a sleek app, an instant feedback rating system, convenience. These are carefully scripted chapters of these brands’ stories and overall products. And they’re designed to make people feel good.

When is the last time you thought about how to evoke emotion in your customers? If you haven’t done a deep dive into your audience’s underlying desires, then you can’t properly craft a resonant brand story or, for that matter, a resonant product. 

There’s a subtle but massive difference between telling a story of how your product can save the day vs. a story that makes your customers the hero. The first is feature-focused. For example, Slack makes office life better because of easy file-sharing. The second is all about customer experience. You will enjoy greater harmony with your co-workers because you’ll love all the fun ways you can communicate with them in Slack—and oh, by the way, the platform will delight you with cleverly crafted messaging that has been thoughtfully baked into the product. Slack knew they had to hook their users on more than just a solid communication tool; they had to make the experience one worth talking about—the brand had to be built alongside the product.

Be a Reflection of What People Want

For companies in the app economy, the line between product and brand is more blurred than it is in the coffee-shop world. But, as Slack has shown, you can take a service as innocuous as an instant-messaging tool and grow it into a communications beast. Successful brands know that customer experience is not limited to the times when a customer is actually interacting with the product. It also includes the softer, more qualitative parts of your business.

Terms like “values” and “purpose” are not only nice-to-haves for a company, they’re vital components that will determine the success of a business more than any other factor. You cannot convey a strong message, have a cohesive brand or a “sticky” product if you’re not internally aligned on your mission. Your values are how you add emotion to your brand and convey the experience you promise, even before any interaction takes place. 

GitHub is a development platform that enables a self-organizing office of developer teams to follow their passions free of traditional structure and hierarchy. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a work environment like that? But a collaborative meritocracy can’t sustain itself unless the engine behind it lives a similar mission every day. In this case, GitHub’s brand, and thus its product, offers users a chance to be part of something greater than self because that’s what the company offers its own people. GitHub attracts a certain type of selfless customer, and that works for them. 

Other companies use value and purpose to give themselves cachet, becoming a status symbol that plays to customer ego. MailChimp says it loud and clear on their homepage: “Being yourself makes all the difference.” Deconstruct the things that are important to your stakeholders —those will be the emotional drivers that attract them to your story and engage them in your product.

Customers Are Not Your Only Stakeholders

There’s another group perhaps more deeply impacted by your brand than customers: your internal team. Values, mission statements, reasons for being—these can all be wrapped up in one tidy package called company culture. 

Starting from the top down, culture is something great brands work to maintain and enhance every day. Your internal ecosystem—the types of experiences team members have with one another and with leaders, how connected they are to the deeper purpose your brand serves—all impact the experience that reverberates through the entire brand.

Culture is always present, whether intentionally established or not. When it is created purposefully, based on a foundation of core values and vision, it creates a motivating, collaborative and passionate environment inside and out. When culture lacks purpose or the all-important “why” element, the result can be a competitive, misaligned and disconnected environment. Why we do what we do is what establishes a deeper emotional connection with all stakeholders, communicates the brand’s promise and enrolls them in the brand’s story.     

Think about the terms commonly used by human resources when they talk about hiring talent. Words like “attraction” and “retention” are borrowed from marketing parlance and are used in the same way here: How can we showcase our brand to bring the right people in, then keep them feeling good while they’re here? Your brand’s culture is the first step.


What’s Your Favorite Brand?

It’s a good question to ask yourself when thinking about the brand you want to create. Some of the greats—Nike, Apple, Harley-Davidson, Nordstrom—may come to mind, but not solely for the actual product they sell. It’s something much deeper than that; it’s the experience they create, the promise they fulfill and the emotional connection they establish with their most diehard fans.      

You may argue that it’s easier for brands with a brick-and-mortar presence to create an experience for employees and customers, but some of today’s most successful brands operate from the cloud with a team of remote workers. InVision is a wildly popular design and prototyping tool for websites that took the time to understand what customers consider to be important at every point along the web and mobile design process. They know that time, efficiency and quality outputs are the end goal of their customers, and they provide an experience to foster that.      

Great brands practice empathy and selflessness because they value customer success over all else. It’s why brands like InVision can have such a profound impact. Their customers feel empowered and have so many of their emotional desires met that the brand becomes an extension of them. For brands, that level of relevance doesn’t come overnight. However, companies that only communicate in product terms will never achieve it.      

The next time you’re in your favorite coffee shop, think about why you’re really there. Then do your best to give your customers the same experience you have when you interact with a brand that speaks your language, understands your wants and anticipates your needs.  A cup of coffee is just a cup of coffee, but the experience elevates its position in the hearts and minds of your audience.

Robert Wallace

Robert Wallace

Robert Wallace is the executive vice president of marketing at Tallwave where he oversees the company’s branding, thought leadership and communications programs to drive growth. Robert has led some of the agency’s largest engagements for clients including FindLaw, Baker Tilly and AppointmentPlus. Contact Robert at robert.wallace@tallwave.com or on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/wallacera.

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