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More than just defining your customer, can you empathize and resonate with them?

Who Do You Stand For?

Simon Sinek famously said “start with why”. In his TED talk he uses Apple as an example of this principle. He says “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” All true.

But I think that this explanation misses a critical point: for whom does this “why” question exist? Which people are we talking about here? Who exactly is buying why you do it? Steve Jobs, in an internal company launch of the “Think Different” ad campaign, hit this nail directly on the head (apologies for the poor video and audio quality).

As he points out, Nike is an expert at this. Nike’s “who” is athletes. But more than this, Nike stands for athletes.

So by the same analysis, Apple stands for creatives. (By which I mean all types of creative people who use technology to do their work, including designers, developers/engineers, artists, and so on, not just advertising industry “creatives”. More recently, with their phone based products, this concept extends to people who believe that they are creative in their personal lives, e.g. Instagram folks.)

To me, the problem with starting with “why” is that it immediately leads to a follow-up question: this answer to why, why is that actually important to me as a customer? Using Simon Sinek’s Apple example above, when he points to the “why” circle he says “everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.” But the immediate question that I have is “so what? why is that important?” But if you look at who Apple is building products for, it makes a lot more sense. If Apple’s primary audience is creative people who want to push the boundaries of their creativity, then the need to think differently and challenge the status quo suddenly becomes important to them, and the “why” becomes obvious in this context.

What is really important to an audience is resonance and trust. The more that a company can create the perception that “we are just like you — we faithfully represent your most important concerns because we understand you and we care about you.” By defining precisely who your audience is and authentically setting out to help them, you create motivation and context for why the “why” question is so important to them. In other words, it makes it personal. A good friend of mine, Kristine Bell, described it this way: your brand’s core values need to be values that your customers actually care about. There’s no point spruiking on about a core value (a “why” question) if it’s not actually that important to your audience. For example, there is not much point talking about durability and high quality if your product is disposable and your customers are mainly interested in low price.

This is often a counter-intuitive way to think about the products that we make and sell. We usually tend to think in terms of what does our product do? how does it work? what features does it have? and so on. If we’ve been paying attention to product management articles during the past few years we might even ask what problem does it solve?

But to ask who is this product actually for is a fairly new question. In the past we might have used personas to obliquely ask this, but they often turn out to be an ineffective pastiche, capturing irrelevant information such as demographics without any analysis of why that demographic information is relevant.

“Who do you stand for?” is different. It’s an empathetic question. It forces you to ask whom you care about? — not in a general abstract way, but in a specific and concrete way — to define those specific customers that you support and care about. For example, it’s obvious from their advertising that Nike cares deeply about athletes and people who aspire to push themselves to new athletic accomplishments. A flat, isolated persona just doesn’t capture that empathy and passion.

Kathy Sierra calls this “making users awesome”, where she explains that to make a successful product you need to empower your customers to become awesome at the goal they are trying to accomplish… and their goal is never to “engage more” with your product. Your product is merely a tool for their wider goal, one of many such tools in their overall toolkit. As in the Nike example, their goal might be get fitter, to spend quality time with their friends in a social game of basketball, to run a marathon, or to win an Olympic medal. When we ask “who do you stand for?”, these are the goals that we are seeking to enable. These goals matter to our customers and they should matter to us too; that’s called helping people to realize their goals and dreams.

From a certain point of view, this is similar to catering to a niche market. But we usually talk about niche markets in terms of population, propensity to buy, dollar value, etc. It’s all very clinical. On the other hand, asking “who do you stand for?” is by its nature personal. Declaring who you stand for forces you to care about your customer and their struggles, instead of just treating them as an anonymous number on a marketing plan or a revenue projection.

One organization I know had great initial success with standing for just one type of customer and their particular needs. They grew enormously in that niche. But then, in order to get bigger, the organization decided that it needed to be more general — to try to appeal to everyone and be all things to all people. Their pitch changed from a clear, concise and compelling value proposition in a self-referencing niche market into a much more general and vague kind of buzzword bingo that left everyone very confused, customers included. What I eventually sensed was that in trying to appeal to everyone, with no focus on anyone in particular’s specific needs, the organization was essentially starting to just stand for themselves.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should no longer consider the question “why”. I’m instead suggesting that asking both “who” and “why” are equally important, and in fact should be asked together. “Who do we stand for? And why is our product/feature important to them?” This is a powerful combination of questions that can uncover your customers’ motivations, goals, values and beliefs. It instantly helps flip your focus from a company-centric viewpoint to a customer-centric viewpoint; figuring out exactly how we fit into our customers’ lives is pivotal to serving them better.

What this all comes down to (and I think both Simon Sinek and Kathy Sierra express this quite well) is that when a person hires your product or service, what they really want is a better version of themselves. They might couch that in functional terms, but those functional terms are just a stand-in for the sense of achievement and accomplishment that they are seeking. This is implied in Alan Klement’s article about Jobs to be Done. Nathan Slaughter also touches on this when he talks about helping to other people to solve a practical problem that is impeding their progress. So “who do you stand for” really drives to the heart of whom specifically you want to help become a better version of themselves and in what way?

As an exercise for the reader, I’m going to ask you to consider who you stand for? Who is the customer that you and your organization serve? What are they trying to achieve? (For themselves I mean, let’s keep our own egos out of it.) Why is this customer important to you? And what do you gain by helping them to achieve their purpose?

At catum.co, we stand for people who craft ideas into products (principally software products, but more broadly any kind of innovative product or creative endeavour.) We stand for the designers, software engineers, writers and product managers who take a rough idea and work that into a tangible working delivered product that customers will buy, use, and hopefully love. In other words we stand for makers. What they are trying to achieve is to make better and more successful software, and with less hassle and fewer difficulties than they experience today. It’s our purpose to help them do that—to become software artisans.

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Raj Nagappan

Raj Nagappan

Founder & CEO, PhD, software engineer, author. Helping teams to craft better products that customers love. Connect at linkedin.com/in/rajnagappan