Cool comes in many flavors: Sometimes, it’s something radically stylish and revolutionary like the iPod. Sometimes, it’s “knock your socks off” customer service or a fantastic story or a moving photo essay or a life-changing art exhibit. It can be the most cleverly designed roof rack or the fastest time-trial bike or the lightest kayak paddle. It doesn’t matter what the product is. No matter how you look at it, successful branding always starts with a product.
Not just a product, but a very well-designed product.
Ask yourself this: What if I completely got rid of advertising, catalogs and company websites… What if all of the promotional stuff we are so used to were suddenly gone? What would I be left with?
Answer: Your product, your brand’s reputation, and word-of-mouth.
So… what is your reputation? Where do you stand against your would-be competitors? Are your products smarter? Tougher? Softer? Faster? Are you known as a cool innovator or are you a pain to deal with when it comes to dealing with warranty or service? Do your customers recommend you to their friends or make a point of steering them away from you? If so, why? What are you going to do about it?
We’re only scratching the surface here, but you get the point: It all begins with the product’s design. No matter how cool your packaging is, how dead-on your concept is and how hot the celebrity endorsing it may be, if your fragrance isn’t appealing, you aren’t going to get many repeat customers.
If the cars you make look great, have fantastic features but burn out their electrical systems after 35,000 miles, guess what? Even your most hardcore drivers are going to think twice about buying one of your cars again.
If your $300 faucets start leaking after only three months…
You get the picture.
Design your customer-service touch-points better than everyone else, and your customers will reward you. (Your competitors’ customers will soon reward you as well.) Build a better car or a better razor or a better computer, and you’ll see what happens pretty quickly, with or without advertising.
For better or for worse, especially now that the planet is more connected than ever, word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire. Do something wrong, get slack, cut corners, and no amount of advertising will save you. Do something right – and be consistent about doing something right – and you’ll be rolling in puppies.
If I wanted to be boring, I would tell you that your product is the foundation of your brand. That it’s the big fat boulder that your success is based on. But the truth is that your product is more like the epicenter of your brand. I say epicenter because your brand isn’t static. It’s always moving outward, towards more and more people. Once the shockwave of a new product launch begins, those ripples start moving. And just like you can’t unspill milk, you can’t unripple a ripple. You can try, but you can’t. Every product launch puts your reputation on the line. Every ad. Every press release. Every change in packaging or manufacturing or design. Every change you make unstills the water and reaches out to the rest of the world.
That’s why brandbuilding starts at the beginning of the product development cycle, not at its end. Everything that goes into the development of a product, whether it is an mp3 player, a zombie flick, a handbag, a sports drink, a magazine or a faucet – before the designer’s pencil ever graces a sheet of paper with its first rough sketch – has to take into account the brand’s strengths and weaknesses and relevance. The product managers, designers, manufacturing engineers and marketing gurus have to understand where they are, where they have been, and where they want to go. They have to ask themselves: Will this look, feel, smell, perform and inspire like an Apple product? Like a BMW product? Like a Michelin product? Will this meet the expectations of our customers, or will it exceed them? Will this cement our position for another year, or will it elevate it?
Before. Not after.
If you aren’t a BMW or an Apple, maybe the questions will be more along the lines of: Will this help us reconnect with the customers we lost? Will this restore their faith in us? Will this get them excited about who we are again? Will this finally pull us out of the shadow of our established competitors?
If the answer is no, how do we get there? What are we missing?
All too often, companies will turn to strategic partners (usually marketing firms, ad agencies or Identity companies) once a product has already been developed. The dynamic is pretty-much “Here! We have this product and we want to sell it (or sell it to more people). Help us.”
Okay, so there’s really nothing wrong with that. If what you’re looking for is a killer marketing strategy, great ads, pub coverage and all kinds of cool POP and promo stuff, you can definitely get your money’s worth. But what if you didn’t wait until your product was pretty-much designed and ready to go into production? What if you didn’t wait until sales had been kind of flat for six months?
What if you brought them in before your designers’ pencils ever hit paper? What if you were to let them help you make sure that your product itself – not just everything around it – were the embodiment of everything you want your brand to be?
Design think-tanks like IDEO and FROG embrace this concept all the way by completely taking over the conceptualizing, design, prototyping and testing of products and systems for client companies. (If you aren’t familiar with their work, check them out. You’ll be astounded at the number of products you have in your house right now that were developed there, starting with the computer mouse.) They have been so amazingly succesful at it that they have now reached cult-like status. But hiring a full-on design juggernaut isn’t always the answer (or financially feasible). Most of the time, companies that already have very good products to their names have the resources to create more. All they might be lacking is that little extra bit of insight.
And that’s where creative companies working as strategic partners come in. Most manufacturers don’t have anthropologists on staff. They don’t have human factors specialists or curiosity officers to help product managers, engineers and business development execs. translate sometimes ethereal customer needs into (first) specific design elements, (second) a relevant brand language, and (third) a complete customer-brand experience.
Real strategic partners act more as interpreters than teachers. Their wisdom comes from living in the village, not on the mountain top or in the classroom. Find them. Invite them in for tea. Let them spend the night and tell you stories by the fire. Let them inspire you and guide you and enrich your company with their bag of ancient magical weapons: creativity, imagination, marketing savvy, behavioral science, and most importantly: insight.
If insight had mass, it would be worth its weight in gold. Here’s a tip: Branding shouldn’t start when a product ad is released. It shouldn’t start when a marketing campaign is implemented. It shouldn’t begin with the creation of clever packaging or when a mark gets burned onto a product, or when a customer service representative gets his new script. It really starts with the product itself, with the very first brainstorming session, when input from customers first get discussed by a project team. That’s when it begins, and that’s brand-building’s ground-zero.
If everything about your brand ripples outward, and at the epicenter of your brand – of your reputation, of your image and ultimately of your success – is your product, then you need to realize the importance that insight plays in the process that brings this product to life.
Every shock wave needs a trigger. A catalyst. And that catalyst is people: Engineers, creatives, listeners, curious Georges, artists, writers, mathematicians, designers, philosophers, anthropologists, product users, historians, poets and problem-solvers. These are the people who will turn a chunk of metal into not only a work of art, but a product that will inspire awe and love and want.
These are the people who will help turn something as precarious as an interaction between a frustrated customer and a customer service rep. into three-minute of toll-free bliss.
These are the people who can make anything transcend its “sum-of-its-parts” banality into an extraordinary experience.
Think about iPod. Think about the Starbucks cup of coffee. Think about the Palm V. Think about every iconic innovative breakthrough that has changed the way we live and work and travel and play. Every single one without fail startedwith a group of people from diverse backgrounds sitting in a room together to listen to each other talk about how to address a need.
This happens at the beginning of a product’s design cycle, not at the end.
Anyone can do this. You could be an international corporation or a one-person company. It doesn’t matter.Think about where you are today. Does your product truly embody the spirit of your brand? Does your brand live and breathe and grow with every new customer?
Imagine you couldn’t afford advertising. Imagine you couldn’t print catalogs or publish a website or create POP displays. Imagine the only way you could promote your product were through word-of-mouth. What would people say about it? What would they say about you? Who would you be?