Your brand is not about the products you sell, it’s about how your products fit into your customers’ stories. Free apps appeal to people who want to be frugal. Luxury cars fit the story of people who are (or want to be) affluent. But branding is more than just product positioning. You can tap into how people really think by matching your businesses’ branding pattern to your customer’s worldview.
Three ethical systems define how most people think about the world and their place in it. One system demands that people follow the rules. One tells people to work on building good character. And one says that everything is permissible as long as the result is positive.
Years of teaching have filtered these stories throughout society. People might not know why they think what they do, but that doesn’t stop them from following this unspoken story. If you can fit your brand into your customers’ narratives, you’ll hold their trust and loyalty.
The five Ps of business strategy, as defined by legendary business strategist Henry Mintzberg, are plan, position, pattern, perspective and ploy. Branding has its place in each, but is most important in position and pattern.
“Authentic brands don’t emerge from marketing cubicles or advertising agencies. They emanate from everything the company does.” –Howard Schultz, Retired CEO and Executive Chairman of Starbucks
Position is where your product fits in the current market, compared to your competitors in price and quality. Pattern complicates position and creates your brand story. For example, if your company makes a cheap, low-quality product, but with every sale donates to a linked charity, that creates a different narrative, especially if marketing and customer experiences match this altruistic pattern. Some customers will pay a premium for this altruistic narrative, because by buying products from an altruistic brand, customers create a virtuous narrative about themselves.
There are three main ethical traditions in philosophy that have influenced how people view their place in society. The first is duty ethics, where people follow set rules, no matter the consequences. The second is consequentialist ethics, where only the outcome matters. And finally, there is virtue ethics, where the goal is to build good character that will lead to good actions.
In reality, even if most people prefer one system to another, everyone mixes and matches bits of each ethical system. For instance, rules-based ethical systems might prohibit lying, but what if you’re in a situation where the only way to save a life is to lie? Rules often come with long lists of exceptions when consequences need to be considered, at least in dire circumstances.
As with everything else, brands can mix and match their stories if they’re clever, but if you mix up your patterns too much, customers will have trouble getting a clear idea of your brand. Find your brand’s story within these three larger narratives and stick to it.
1. Branding for customers who say, “I do what I should.”
Brands should be stable and uncomplicated to fit a rules-based narrative. There’s nothing flashy about a brand that appeals to duty-bound people, and you’re not going to find much in the way of radical innovation or disruptive business models here. But that’s just what some customers want in their narrative.
Some people want Airbnb breaking regulations and cutting prices. But some people want to go to a Best Western because it’s stable and has a long trustworthy history. Best Western’s brand pattern fits a narrative of law-abiding order: nothing adventurous, but nothing unacceptable either.
2. Branding for customers who say, “I want to be good.”
Brands need to be more than stable and law-abiding to fit a virtue-based narrative. To fit a virtue-based narrative, customers should feel like they’re doing good and improving their personal character by buying your products.
There are many ways to appeal to virtue. Most major companies already donate to charities, and many make this a part of their marketing. And some brands are based entirely on virtue, such as Tom’s Shoes, which gives away a pair of shoes for every pair bought. Tom’s Shoes makes its customers feel like they’re doing good, and they don’t even have to try that hard to do it.
3. Branding for customers who say, “I want the best outcome.”
Most people want the products they buy to work and provide value, but for some people, outcomes and consequences are all they care about. This doesn’t mean price alone. Outcome means the whole picture of results from a product, such as cultural and social value.
Under Steve Jobs, Apple was notorious for rarely giving to charity, but it didn’t matter. In the eyes of people who simply wanted the best, Apple’s brand was strong. A pattern of great product after great product, when combined with stylish marketing and design, made Apple products good to use and culturally prestigious.
Still, appealing to outcomes is often the hardest way for brands to stay in customer narratives. Outcomes, especially in newer industries, are highly dependent on changing innovation. Just a few years of bad products will break the pattern and destroy the brand’s image.
No matter how you decide to fit into your customers’ stories, remember that consistency is key. Make it easy to see where your brand fits in your customers’ narratives by keeping your pattern clear across marketing, products and customer interactions. Most brand stories relate back to the ethical roots of your customers’ worldviews, and you can keep customer trust and loyalty by finding a place in that narrative.