The students in my branding class just reminded of one of the basic axioms of branding: It doesn’t matter what you think. It only matters what your target market thinks.
To demonstrate the impact of brands, I posted six picture of myself in shirts with different logos. I minimized other variables – using the same pose, the same background, the same facial expression, etc. All the shirts, save one, were “polo” style. The idea was to isolate the logos and their respective brands. I then asked the students what they thought of each version of me. Was one was more friendly than others? Was one more stuck up? Was one richer? Another poorer?”
As an afterthought, I tossed in a picture of me wearing a (non-polo) shirt with a dachshund logo (pictured). I bought the shirt on a whim because we have a dachshund (pictured here) and I like the breed. I thought my friends (my target market) would enjoy the (inside) joke.
Well, my students let me know that what they beheld was a lot different than what I beheld. I thought the shirt was cool in an ironic kind of way. They thought it was gaudy and generally inappropriate. (I guess I’m too old to be ironic). One student wrote, “I perceived that one to be more “stuck up” and rich. … plaid button-down shirts are often worn by wealthy Hamptons residents, it screams yacht club, country club to me.” Another student, wrote, “The shirt is crazy bright with pink and purple so he will stand out in a crowd. I barely notice the logo because the shirt screams I am here.” Yet another wrote, “As for the plaid… I’m biased against plaid. I think it looks goofy.”
So, I thought I looked cool but others saw me as stuck-up, rich, self-centered, and goofy. Yikes!
All of which brings me to Miley Cyrus and her recent re-branding at the Video Music Awards (VMA) ceremony. I’ve read a lot of hand-wringing articles about Miley’s twerking. Unfortunately, none of those articles were written by members of Miley’s target audience. In terms of branding, it doesn’t matter much what the parents of Miley’s fans think. In fact, horrifying the parents may be the simplest way to win the hearts and minds of the kids. Miley’s saying, in effect, “We’re in this together. They don’t understand.” That’s a message that always resonates with teens. It’s one of the reasons I liked the Rolling Stones as a kid. My parents thought the Dave Clark Five were just fine but that the Stones “went too far”. Message to me: cue the Stones.
What’s the message here? First, identify your target market. Second, understand exactly what your target market thinks, what they believe, and what they value. Third, ignore anyone who is not in the target market. It doesn’t matter what they think. Fourth, that includes you. You are not the target market. Forget yourself. Brand is in the eye of the beholder.
Long ago, when I was a product manager at Solbourne Computer, we were trying to answer some nagging questions about our market. We built very fast symmetric multiprocessing Unix servers — back when symmetric multi-processing (SMP) was a brave new thing. In the early going, our machines were essentially hand built and we had difficulty meeting demand. As we worked our way down the manufacturing curve, however, we learned how to build machines more quickly. It soon became clear that we could not only satisfy demand but exceed it.
So we needed more demand. To identify potential sources of demand, we studied all of our sales to date. What patterns could we identify? Unfortunately, the raw data revealed almost nothing. There were no real patterns in terms of SIC code, geography, or industry. We had sold servers to national laboratories, astronomical observatories, large companies, medium-sized companies, universities, B2B companies, B2C companies, and so on.
Since we couldn’t identify any clear patterns in the data, we decided to go out and meet our early customers. We reached out to all of our customers and requested face-to-face meetings. Ultimately, we scheduled meetings with about 50 different customers.
As we returned from our customer calls, we held lengthy meetings to discuss the results. Again, no patterns emerged. Finally, someone suggested that we simply describe our customers. Were they fat or thin? Short or tall? Old or young? Frankly, I thought that was a dumb idea but it turned out to be brilliant. As we began describing the customers, a very clear pattern emerged. First, they were all men. Second, they were in their early to mid 30s. Third, they were all heads of their department. Titles varied but they were what we would today call the CIO. Fourth, and most important, they had recently replaced a much older manager. They were new in their positions and wanted to make their mark.
Why did they buy Solbourne? We were a small company with hot new technology — symmetric multiprocessing. But we also ran on the Unix operating system — a very safe choice. Further, the benefits of SMP were well understood — the concepts were proven though the technology was new. So newly installed, youngish CIOs could use us to demonstrate that the old regime was out; a new regime was in. They could look bold without worrying too much about failure. When we figured this out, one of our pithier sales reps said, “Geez… it’s like dogs peeing on a wall. They’re using our machines to mark their territory.” All we had to do then was to figure out where the new CIOs were. But that’s a different story.
So, what’s the moral of the story? We thought we were selling very sophisticated, state-of-the-art servers. But actually, we were fulfilling a psycho/social need. We gave our buyers signaling equipment. With Solbourne servers, they could signal that they had arrived. It was a sobering lesson in selling technology. It’s often not the technology that matters but rather the (often unspoken) need the technology addresses. It’s also a lesson in the power of face-to-face meetings. If we hadn’t met our customers personally, we never would have figured it out.
If you have a fairly simple product — like soda pop — you can often communicate directly with your market. You figure out who’s likely to buy and craft messages that will appeal to them. Nothing stands between you and your audience. It’s like talking with someone standing nearby on a calm, clear day.
When you have a complicated product or service, on the other hand, you’ll need to deal with an embedded commentariat of current customers, gurus, analysts, pundits, kibbitzers, journalists, and competitors. Each layer of the commentariat can distort your message. It feels like yelling at a person 100 meters away on a windy, foggy, rainy day.
Let’s say you’re introducing a next generation product. You’ll go through an early customer acceptance test to sort out last-minute issues. Once you have everything sorted, you can just put out a press release, right? Wrong.
The issue is that your product is complicated — nobody understands it fully. If your product is very innovative, you have a doubly difficult problem. First, nobody understands it. What does it do? Second, nobody understands its category. What’s it supposed to do? Potential buyers will ask you lots of questions but will then turn to the commentariat to seek verification and validation. So, before you talk to the market, you need to ensure that the commentariat thoroughly understands what you’re doing.
Think of an ice cream cone — it’s wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. The trick with ice cream cone communication is to analyze from the top down but communicate from the bottom up. The top of the cone — the widest part — represents your market. It’s big and broad and tempting. Communicating with the market is your ultimate goal. To get there, you’ll need to work your way through the commentariat.
To organize your communications, work from the top down, with a simple question, “Whom do they trust?” So, who would potential customers trust? It’s a good bet that they would trust the trade press. So take your story to the trade press before you take it to potential customers. Who do the trade press trust? Well, they’ll probably ask to speak to some gurus or analysts who have studied the issue in more detail. So brief the analysts before you take the story to the trade press. Who do the analysts trust? Customers. Analysts want to hear directly from customers, preferably without you in the room. So, prepare your early customers to talk to analysts and then make sure they meet.
And customers — whom do they trust? They’ll talk to many of your employees. Let’s say you’ve told a customer, Angela, that your new product is the best thing since sliced bread. Then Angela talks to John, her favorite consultant on your support line. Angela asks about the hot new product. John says, “I’ve never heard of it”. Unwittingly, John has just undercut the entire communication chain. Angela loses confidence in the product and may even jump to the conclusion that you’re lying.
So always start your communications with your own employees. They’re the narrow, bottom section of the ice cream cone. Make sure they understand the key messages associated with the product. Then work your way upward and outward in the cone, to the interlinked audiences of the commentariat. It will take some time to get to the top of the cone — your target market – but it’s well worth the effort.
When I lived in Stockholm, I was responsible for customers throughout Scandinavia. One of my favorite customers was Dale of Norway, the creators of richly patterned, thick wool sweaters. The sweaters are very popular with winter sport enthusiasts in my home state of Colorado. They’re stylish and they’re practical … and therein lies a tale.
I visited Dale of Norway’s headquarters and met their CEO. The company is located in a picturesque little town called Dale. (We call it Dale as in Chip and Dale but the Norwegians pronounce it Darla). When I met the CEO I mentioned that I was from Colorado and that my wife and I were both customers. The conversation went something like this:
CEO: “Let me guess. You have one sweater and your wife has three.”
Me (surprised): “Yes. How did you know?”
CEO: “Women see our sweaters as fashion statements and they’re willing to buy more than one. Men see them as a high quality product that will last a life time. If it will last a life time, why would you ever buy more than one?”
Me: “I wish I understood my customers as well as you understand yours.”
There are a couple of lessons here. First, sometimes a satisfied customer is just that: satisfied. I was a very satisfied Dale of Norway customer. If you did a customer satisfaction survey, I would be right at the top. But I was generating exactly zero revenue for the company.
One of Dale of Norway’s challenges was to overcome the satisfied customer curse. They needed to give me (and even my wife) more reasons to buy. To complement their heavy weight sweaters, they introduced two new product lines — mid-weight sweaters and lighter weight accessories. I’m now the proud owner of a mid-weight sweater and some long underwear. I’m still satisfied but, more importantly, I’ve generated new revenues for Dale of Norway.
The second lesson: different people buy for different reasons. Don’t ever assume that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. To the maximum extent possible, live with your customers. When you see the world through their eyes, you’ll find that different groups see your product differently. There’s nothing surprising in that — it’s just segment marketing. Unless you understand how each segment thinks, you’ll never communicate effectively with them. One message does not fit all.
The third lesson? Dale of Norway makes great sweaters, gloves, mittens, and scarves. So get out there and buy one … or two … or three. You can find them here.