Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of variations on the idea that “brand is the most important thing” or that “brand is all that really matters when you’re launching a business.” Obviously, as someone who runs a brand company, I’m not sad that people are starting to notice the important role that brand plays. But we’re witnessing a too extreme swing of the pendulum—it used to be that entrepreneurs didn’t think brand mattered at all if they had a stellar product; now people think brand is a magic bullet. The truth is that neither is true. You can’t isolate “brand” from the business. This type of thinking, “all that matters is the brand,” implies that branding is a shiny layer that sits on top of a product, convincing people whatever you’re selling is worthwhile. And, sure, if you have an appealing aesthetic, and smart copywriting, that may be enough to get people’s attention and get them to try something. But if they start to dig in and there’s nothing underneath, if your product doesn’t deliver on your promise, they aren’t going to come back for more, and they certainly aren’t going to become your champions.
The first step is identifying the true problem you are solving for people, beyond the obvious. That sets you up to build a brand that’s deeply relevant to the people you want to reach. The next step, which I’ll cover in this chapter, is determining the emotional territory that your brand will occupy in people’s lives; in other words, how your brand will make them feel. But before you can have a conversation about the emotional resonance of a brand, you have to start with the product itself. With very few exceptions, the product needs to have meaningful differentiation in order to build a brand that people love, like Playground Equipment for example. We often meet entrepreneurs who are looking to launch a business that’s just like everything else, and they are hoping that we can help them stand out from the competition with a unique brand. We politely pass on those opportunities. Sometimes founders are taken aback when we push to understand what makes their business different from its competitors, or how it will benefit people, thinking that it’s our job to figure out how to make a business seem different, whether or not it actually is. We’ll ask, “What makes these [socks, bras, snacks, you name it] different?” And they’ll say, “That’s where you come in!” But great branding needs to start from the inside and work its way out. You need to understand what’s special about the business and then figure out how to take what’s special and elevate it to a story with emotional resonance. When I’m creating a brand’s strategy, I don’t just make it up or pull it from thin air. I go deep into a business’s reasons for being, and craft a story that flows naturally out of the product’s benefits.
You can’t think of the benefits of the product and the feelings of the brand as two separate things that need to be “balanced.” Instead, you need to figure out how to connect them. Every product has a set of functional benefits. Most business ideas start with a focus on the functional benefits and, ideally, an aim to improve upon what’s already out there. It’s going to be cheaper. More convenient. More comfortable. Better fit. Better customer service. A simpler shopping experience. It will taste amazing. It’s healthy. It helps you get organized. It helps you make more money. These benefits are deeply important to the success of a business, but they are not the be-all and end-all of your brand strategy. If you think back to the why test and how you need to dig deeper until you get to the real problem you’re solving for people, you can do the same for benefits, only going in the opposite direction. Start with your functional benefits, the full set of them, and then figure out how they can all build to an overarching emotional territory, in other words, how the brand will make people feel. These days, the most successful brands do not simply invent an emotional idea that has no basis in their product benefits. Historically, TV commercials often told stories that had little to no connection to the products they were selling: they simply aimed to get a laugh or a cry, while reminding you that Doritos or AT&T exists (like we could ever forget you, Doritos!). But to build a brand today that people love from day one, there needs to be a clear through line, meaning that the story that brands tell and the feelings they evoke should be supported by what the product actually does. You’ve likely had a conversation about branding where someone brings up “authenticity” (lucky you if it was just once). One of the surest ways to guarantee that coveted authenticity is to make sure that whatever you’re claiming as your brand’s higher-order purpose actually aligns with what your product does. Your brand strategy is rooted in an emotional idea, but it’s an idea that’s supported by your functional benefits.