In the last class of the MBA Brand Management course I teach, one of my students asked me a very simple, but provocative, question.
My boss often says the customer is always right. To beat the competition, all we need to do is to listen to her and give her what she wants. Intuitively this makes sense, but it doesn’t jibe with what we discussed this semester?
“You’re right,” was my response, “strong brands don’t just give customers what they want. They actually do something more insightful.”
The truth of the matter is that truly strong brands create distinctive and compelling value for their customers – they do more than respond to what their customers say they want.
There’s a difference – and it is quite profound.
Strong brands provide customers with compelling value
Customers give their allegiance to brands that provide them with relevant and distinctive tangible, emotional, and self-expressive values. The superior financial rewards earned are a consequence of sustaining this allegiance over time.
Brand owners must, therefore, focus on fulfilling the needs of the customers they choose to serve in ways that are better and different from their competition. The owners of strong brands are obsessed with creating compelling value. That’s how their brands achieve prominence and distinctiveness in the minds of customers.
So, where does the inspiration for this compelling value come from?
It comes from being customer-oriented, NOT customer-led.
And, the difference is?
Customer-oriented brands surprise and delight customers
In my experience, the owners of strong brands are inspired by a deep-seated purpose and set of beliefs to make the world a better place–and it is that purpose which draws customers to them. It inspires the products and services they create. And these products and services invariably strike a deep cord with customers who hold the same worldview.
This passion starts inside the organization. And, that is what makes the brand distinctive. The brand owner’s underlying beliefs becomes the ties that bind them with their employees and their customers—all of whom share the same worldview.
The crucial point here is that these brand owners look out on the world and see a gap they feel compelled to fill. In my consulting work, I often chat with founders who say that’s the fundamental reason they started their company. They chose to address a gap they saw in the world that others had not yet discerned. To address a gap that was unarticulated and unrealized within the marketplace. The success of their company comes from the fact, that once they addressed this gap, customers flocked to it.
That is why the owners I meet, and the organizations they lead, are universally passionate and relentless in seeking and discovering new and desirable sources of value for their customers. Time and again, those sources of value surprise and delight their customers…which is why their brands garner such high levels of customer loyalty.
But what about the customer-led brands then…
They’re on the path to competitive sameness
Brands that focus solely on fulfilling the articulated, unmet needs of customers cannot build or sustain prominence and distinctiveness in the marketplace. These brands are often stewarded by owners devoid of a unique vision for their category and incapable of discerning new sources of value for their customers.
The owners of these brands rush to be first to fulfill the newly articulated needs of their customers—needs broadcasted to and heard by ALL of the players in the marketplace. The end result is that because all these me-too brands are in a never-ending race to meet these same articulated needs—no one brand ends up out in front.
Competitive sameness ensues.
Waiting for the customer to articulate his need is a poor way to build a strong brand. It does not lead to brand prominence or distinctiveness in the minds of customers. It does not build a strong brand.
Clearly, a better way is needed.
I would always bet on the brands that are customer-oriented versus customer-led. It’s a better path to building a strong brand and business.
Where would you place your bet?