Where Does Product End and Brand Begin?

By Robert Wallace
May 24, 2017

You don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee. Coffee is what you walk out the door with, but…


You don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee. Coffee is what you walk out the door with, but it’s not what keeps you returning to Starbucks (or to another favorite coffee shop). Given the landscape of retailers brewing and selling what essentially amounts to the same commodity, the fact that we pledge our loyalty to one roaster over another is further proof that the coffee is not the “thing” we’re after.

Need more evidence? How about the price of a cup at Starbucks? There are plenty of cheaper options that are justas good and deliver the same effect, including making coffeeat home. But since coffee isn’t the thing, we’re willing to pay a premium. 

So what is the thing we seek if it’s not the product itself? It’s the experience and the promise of that experience delivered consistently. Starbucks gives us something emotionally that no other competitor can: a completely unique experience. Our favorite café pours more than a hot latte in our cup; it fills us up with emotional satisfaction.  

Whether it’s that first sip that brings a spark of joy, the sense of community, the way the employees engage with us or the soundtrack that plays in the store, successful companies create a consistent brand feel that gives extra life to the goods they sell. We may arrive at a business through its products or services because we have a need to fulfill in the moment, but we stay for the emotional connection. We keep coming back to a brand because to us it delivers on a promise that speaks to what’s important and makes us feel good at every touchpoint.

Emotions bridge the gap between product and brand, creating real connections with customers. Many believe a great product should sell itself, and so they focus on a few tangible features and benefits. But while a great product is essential, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Without a story or promise to bring the audience along and establish a deeper connection, customers won’t remain loyal.

The Main Character of Your Story: Customers

Customers are people, and great brands go into business to solve people’s problems. Stop solving the problem and you stop having customers. 

The taxi industry no longer meets the experience consumers want? Then there’s a market for an on-demand car transportation service that behaves differently. People don’t use Uber or Lyft because it gets them to their destination faster. Customers use Uber or Lyft because these brands understand everything they hate about taxis and do the exact opposite at every turn. 

Brands like Uber and Lyft take the time to understand what is important to today’s consumer and recreate the experience: clean, modern cars, a sleek app, an instant feedback rating system, convenience. These are carefully scripted chapters of these brands’ stories and overall products. And they’re designed to make people feel good.

When is the last time you thought about how to evoke emotion in your customers? If you haven’t done a deep dive into your audience’s underlying desires, then you can’t properly craft a resonant brand story or, for that matter, a resonant product. 

There’s a subtle but massive difference between telling a story of how your product can save the day vs. a story that makes your customers the hero. The first is feature-focused. For example, Slack makes office life better because of easy file-sharing. The second is all about customer experience. You will enjoy greater harmony with your co-workers because you’ll love all the fun ways you can communicate with them in Slack—and oh, by the way, the platform will delight you with cleverly crafted messaging that has been thoughtfully baked into the product. Slack knew they had to hook their users on more than just a solid communication tool; they had to make the experience one worth talking about—the brand had to be built alongside the product.

Be a Reflection of What People Want

For companies in the app economy, the line between product and brand is more blurred than it is in the coffee-shop world. But, as Slack has shown, you can take a service as innocuous as an instant-messaging tool and grow it into a communications beast. Successful brands know that customer experience is not limited to the times when a customer is actually interacting with the product. It also includes the softer, more qualitative parts of your business.

Terms like “values” and “purpose” are not only nice-to-haves for a company, they’re vital components that will determine the success of a business more than any other factor. You cannot convey a strong message, have a cohesive brand or a “sticky” product if you’re not internally aligned on your mission. Your values are how you add emotion to your brand and convey the experience you promise, even before any interaction takes place. 

GitHub is a development platform that enables a self-organizing office of developer teams to follow their passions free of traditional structure and hierarchy. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a work environment like that? But a collaborative meritocracy can’t sustain itself unless the engine behind it lives a similar mission every day. In this case, GitHub’s brand, and thus its product, offers users a chance to be part of something greater than self because that’s what the company offers its own people. GitHub attracts a certain type of selfless customer, and that works for them. 

Other companies use value and purpose to give themselves cachet, becoming a status symbol that plays to customer ego. MailChimp says it loud and clear on their homepage: “Being yourself makes all the difference.” Deconstruct the things that are important to your stakeholders —those will be the emotional drivers that attract them to your story and engage them in your product.

Customers Are Not Your Only Stakeholders

There’s another group perhaps more deeply impacted by your brand than customers: your internal team. Values, mission statements, reasons for being—these can all be wrapped up in one tidy package called company culture. 

Learn the proven, practical approach for building and marketing products that sell.

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About the Authors

  • Robert Wallace is the executive vice president of marketing at Tallwave where he oversees the company’s branding, thought leadership and communications programs to drive growth. Robert has led some of the agency’s largest engagements for clients including FindLaw, Baker Tilly and AppointmentPlus. Contact Robert at robert.wallace@tallwave.com or on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/wallacera.

Categories:  Go-to-Market Personas Strategy

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