Put your brand first, not your products

Photo credit Tom Sodoge via Unsplash

The holidays have come and gone, and with them goes the gifts and celebration that always inundate the season. The retail industry tends to draw a lot of attention to how much people spend with studies and numbers released in the wake of that ever-popular shopping day, Black Friday.

This year was a little different though. In the past, establishing brand loyalty used to be primarily about getting people into your store. Later, it was about getting people online and in your store. Now it’s about a lot more.

A company trying to sell products also has to engage with its customers on a more personal level. We live in an era where products are at customers’ fingertips — the product itself isn’t a differentiator anymore.

People don’t just want to be sold a product, they also want an experience that goes along with it.

Now that companies can be literally everywhere — in your Instagram feed, a curated Spotify playlist, interactive ads on your morning commute — customers no longer want a basic advertisement they want an experience to feel like they are a part of the brand.

Leading companies are taking advantage of new technologies and asserting their brands across social ecosystems in a manner that encourages brand loyalty. A few companies took the unique angle of selling themselves without selling their products. In fact, one even asked customers to take a step back and not buy its products at all and instead think about the bigger message of the holidays. Let’s take a look at this in practice with three distinct companies who each have a handle on their brand and how to sell it without actually selling a product: Burberry, Warby Parker, and Patagonia.


The Old Timer: Burberry

Burberry used to be seen as a dated and pretentious British brand; however, under the tutelage of two key leaders — former CEO, Angela Ahrendts and Chief Creative Officer, Christopher Bailey — the brand has undergone a much needed facelift. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Ahrendts explained her experience with transforming Burberry’s classic brand into a modern purveyor of fine goods. She identified a fundamental inconsistency between the products and in-store experiences.

Though Burberry is a well recognized global brand, there was much confusion on what was offered in stores. Ahrendts explained this problem to HBR. “We were making classic Burberry raincoats that said ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ I later learned that we had outerwear licensees in Italy and Germany making trench coats that were even cheaper than those in the United States.”

To combat this issue, Bailey and Ahrendts moved the brand back to its iconically British origins, ensuring that products were actually made in England. Going back to its roots was one thing, but — how could Burberry become the finest purveyor of British clothes while also staying afloat in luxury markets? Its competitors, including Gucci and LVMH, were thriving.

Burberry used its social media presence to not only ensure relevancy in an ever-changing fashion market but to also connect with consumers around the world. Although its biggest followings are on Facebook and Twitter, it has gained a growing, younger audience on its Instagram account. Burberry uses these platforms not only to promote products, fashion shows, and advertising campaigns, but also to show fans just how British it actually is. You’re just as likely to see a post about a new British band it’s supporting through Burberry Acoustic sessions as you are a new coat it is unveiling.

Burberry Acoustic

Reaching consumers has never been easier. Christopher Bailey expressed this when explaining his thoughtful and unique approach to technology, specifically social media. “Technology is an intrinsic part of most people’s lives,” he said. “All we’ve done is make sure to weave technology into the fabric of the company. This is how customers live, they wake up with a device in their hand and life begins.” The company went back to its roots and, although they are in the luxury goods market, they still have a way of selling the Burberry brand to wider audiences as a lifestyle.

TL;DR: Burberry used to represent an aged British brand but through digital branding the company is seen as a purveyor of a British lifestyle. It has used its digital platforms to unify and focus the Burberry brand.


The Cool Hipster: Warby Parker

While it took a period of growth and introspection for Burberry to get where it is now, there are companies that have been getting it right from the very beginning. Take a look at Warby Parker. It came into the market at the right time with the right idea in mind — a cheaper eyewear alternative that still lets customers feel fashionable. Co-founder Neil Blumenthal explained the reasoning behind Warby Parker to CBS, “The basic premise was that glasses are fun, but they’re un-fun when they cost $500.” Warby Parker is committed to keeping prices low and sell most of its glasses for under $100.

A Warby Parker store in Dallas

The founders got the name of the brand from Jack Kerouac, and have since created a bookish culture around the company. Stores are full of novels and Warby Parker has even entered the publishing world with a books published specifically for its stores. These have quirky titles like, Good Luck Omens for the Modern Era and Should I Get Bangs? The glasses that Warby Parker sells have memorable names such as Laurel, Holcombe, and Gellhorn. From a branding perspective, it’s a great way for customers to get involved. They’re more likely to remember the name of their lenses and can share that with friends and family.

Warby Parker stands for more than cool glasses though. The company donates a pair of glasses to charity for each pair of glasses sold (in a manner similar to TOMS). This is accomplished through a partnership with VisionSpring, a nonprofit that specializes in providing glasses to those in impoverished areas.

The company also uses its website and social media platforms to lead with more than just glasses. It has a blog that curates book suggestions, introduces new cocktail recipes, showcases office culture, and much more. You can go to Spotify and listen to a Warby Parker curated playlist. Alternatively, you could go to the Warby Parker YouTube page to see those who have received a pair of donated glasses from Warby Parker.

Warby Parker started solely as an online retailer, but it has gone on to create great brick-and-mortar store experiences across the country that are visually appealing, personify its brand, and also do a great job of showcasing its products. Warby Parker has expanded upon its brand with events that get people in the stores but are not focused on selling products. During the holiday season, Warby Parker encouraged customers to come into stores around the country to make customized buttons with the help of local artists.

Warby Parker is quintessentially cool, and it maintains that coolness throughout all aspects of its brand whether it’s through the name of the glasses or the packaging for their customers’ at-home try-ons. Warby Parker has found a way to insert its brand in so many different facets of people’s’ lives beyond the norm. In fact, Warby Parker is beginning to define the new normal for consumer brands.

TL;DR: Warby Parker has become more than just a company that sells glasses. Its events, playlists, and videos ensure that customers see more than the glasses (no pun intended).


The Environmentalist: Patagonia

As I discussed in one of my previous articles, Does a jacket make you feel like you can climb Everest?, Patagonia does a great job of encouraging consumers to live the lifestyle its products promote. It has even gone so far as to tell customers to not buy its products. The company bought a full page ad in The New York Times prior to Black Friday in 2011 asking customers to not buy a Patagonia jacket. In an email sent to its customers, Patagonia explained its decision. “Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time — and leave a world inhabitable for our kids — we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.” Five years later, the company is still continuing to run this campaign.

Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles

Patagonia has encouraged full transparency in the products it produces and where those products are made. Through the Footprint Chronicles, customers can see which factories are being used for each product and how many people work at those factories. In true Patagonia fashion, the green living movement is infused into many other facets of its work. Through The New Localism initiative, Patagonia brings attention to issues that are affecting public lands. Those that are interested can watch videos detailing the situation and take a pledge to help the cause. Additionally, Patagonia created a short film, Jumbo Wild, which explains the importance of preserving land in the Purcell Mountains free from the influence of a ski resort.

The products that Patagonia sell align perfectly with the social responsibility the brand embodies. Patagonia has even entered the world of food with Patagonia Provisions — selling everything from buffalo jerky to packaged sockeye salmon. This initiative is not just about the food it sells, it’s about explaining where each product comes from and how each was sourced sustainably.

The company encourages green, outdoor living far beyond the products it sells. A new book, Tools for Grassroots Activists, expands upon its invite-only Tools Conference where guests can learn from seasoned environmental activists on the methods they use to help spread their message. This strategy ensures that people look to Patagonia for inspiration to get outdoors and stay active — and it doesn’t hurt if you use their products to do so. This ensures people can go to them for anything — whether it’s an energy bar or insight on rock climbing from an ambassador. Patagonia has it all for your next adventure.

TL;DR: Patagonia has become the clear leader in the field for outdoors activities and helps customers get immersed in the culture through transparency and ventures into different fields (e.g. movie making, food, book publishing).


The means are out there for companies to get customers involved in more than just the product. However, it’s hard to ensure brand unity through all these different tools. These brands have done a great job of creating allegiance around their brands as opposed to just their products. Through this branding work, customers don’t think twice about going to Warby Parker for their next pair of glasses, Burberry for a raincoat, or Patagonia for the newest pair of hiking pants.


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