Purpose Versus Product
A Guide to Building a Community Around Your Company’s Purpose
Now, more than any other time in history, commoditization is happening at rapid pace for unique products and features. Due to this rapid pace of commoditization, competitive advantages are short-lived. If a firm’s product does have a unique feature, they will have only a short window in which to market the feature before it is ubiquitous in their industry — as competitors race to copy it. Thus, a firm must focus on their “Purpose” to drive brand loyalty and resist commoditization or irrelevance. The firm’s products, in this case, must be a derivative of their purpose.
Theodore Levitt explains this concept in his famous paper, Marketing Myopia (1960).
The railroads serve as an example of an industry whose failure to grow is due to a limited market view. Those behind the railroads are in trouble not because the need for passenger transportation has declined or even because that need has been filled by cars, airplanes, and other modes of transport. Rather, the industry is failing because those behind it assumed they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. They were railroad oriented instead of transportation oriented, product oriented instead of customer oriented.
This “Purpose versus Product” concept has many important implications on how executives should view their business; not the least of which is the impact that Purpose can have when a firm provides the structure and opportunity for their customer base to form a community.
The idea of a company’s customers organizing into a loyal “community” is incredibly enticing for the company’s leaders. Think of Apple’s cult-like following that purchases every new iPhone, iPad, Macbook, AirPod, and will wait outside in the cold to be the first to own these items. Or the 400,000 people who are on a waitlist for Tesla’s Model 3. Or a baseball team’s fans that show up or tune in to every game despite that season’s record.
However, communities do not arise out of products. No matter how much anyone enjoys using their Swiffer, you will not find a community that exists to extol the virtues of Swiffers. Rather, communities form around shared interests — in other words, a Purpose.
Apple is not selling computers and phones, they are selling creativity. Tesla is not selling cars, they are selling environmental consciousness and futurism. Baseball teams are not selling tickets and jerseys, they are selling hometown pride, tradition, and competition.
Architecture of Participation
When people find a brand whose Purpose aligns with their ideal version of themselves, information asymmetry is created. They feel compelled to tell their family and friends about this company that “understands them.” Thus, the burden of promotion is shifted from brand to customer. We call this the “Customer as Teacher” model.
While a company can not create a community, they can provide the infrastructure and incentives that allow a community to grow. At my advising firm, we call this the “Architecture of Participation”.
There are many strategies and tactics to go about building an Architecture of Participation. One of the lowest cost and most accessible ways to do this (for you and your customers) is with a social media content strategy that reflects your company’s Purpose.
Often times, companies take a product-based approach to their content strategy. They focus on flaunting their product’s unique features or a new design. This is of interest only to people who are in the consideration stage of the customer journey towards an ultimate purchase. A product-focused content strategy will not engage the majority of people that are not ready to purchase. Thus, the firm is left out of the conversation surrounding their Purpose.
At GHStrategic, we recently worked with Brown University to develop a Purpose-driven campaign to increase the amount of applications from diverse backgrounds that were underrepresented in Brown’s student body. Rather than create a campaign that highlighted Brown’s classes, facilities, and notable faculty (i.e. products), we worked with the student body to tell the stories of the students that represented diversity on campus.
Each student reflected openly and honestly about their experiences at Brown. Through a series of videos, these students addressed their concerns upon applying and how they had overcome those concerns. In all cases, these students were able to articulate how their various backgrounds enhanced their experience at Brown. This approach allowed for the prospective applicants to see a tangible representation of their personal aspirations; that is Purpose as opposed to product. These videos connected Brown’s Purpose of the pursuit of knowledge and self-discovery to a diverse population that had not previously viewed Brown University from that perspective. As a result, Brown’s admissions department was, in the words of their Dean, “swamped” with applications from all types of backgrounds.
Repositioning a Brand’s Communications
As a thought experiment, let’s consider an airline. This airline has a product-focused content strategy that features photos and videos on that airline’s newest planes with more legroom and superior inflight entertainment experience, their frequent flyers’ lounge with a bar and wait service, and their impressive list of non-stop flight destinations. While these are all notable features, they are only of interest to people that are already considering that airline for the specific journey that they are planning.
With a Purpose-focused content strategy, the airline would be creating content around how their customers desire to feel about themselves. The business and luxury flyers’ desire to feel successful and sophisticated. Parents’ desire to feel responsible and safe. The new content strategy would take the airline’s features and present them through the lens of these desires. This lens provides much needed context to the features. Extra legroom and a luxurious frequent flyers lounge become a representation of the airline’s commitment to sophisticated travel. One-stop flights and kid-friendly entertainment options become a representation of the airline’s commitment to responsible and safe travels for families.
The Purpose-driven content strategy does not stop at how the airline positions their products. Additional content can be created to provide value to customers and reinforce the airline’s Purpose. This content would include a video of the 10 best restaurants in the Mediterranean, product reviews of high-end suitcases, a pre-journey checklist for taking children on international flights, a list of children’s TV shows that are available to download on Netflix, and testimonials from previous customers about their experiences.
The airline has a much greater chance of appealing to and retaining a wider audience with a Purpose-driven content strategy. The airline can also engage people at all stages of the customer journey — from people that are dreaming up a future luxurious European vacation to people that are deciding on an airline for an upcoming trip to getting recent travelers to leave reviews.
Most importantly, by producing content around their Purpose, the airline increases the likelihood that customers will engage with each other, thus growing a community. A “10 Best Restaurants in…” video will attract questions from people who want to visit, answers from people who have visited, and shares from people who want to visit with their friends or family. All of this is happening on the airline’s owned social media pages or comment section of their website blog. This is the Customer as Teacher model scaling into an Architecture of Participation.
The very first thing we do when we work with companies is take them through our first model, the “Mirror of Desire”. By using your company’s products or services, how is a customer realizing an idealized version of themselves? Understanding this allows a company to identify their durable Purpose and resist a product-centric approach to marketing.
Take a look at how your company approaches their content strategy. Are you creating Purpose-driven content or product-driven? Does your content appeal to everyone that has an interest in your Purpose or only those that are preparing to make a purchase?
If your company is too product-focused, it’s never too late to adopt a new strategy and create a Purpose-driven content strategy. If your company is putting out Purpose-driven content, what results are you seeing? Are you seeing a community develop? Are you taking steps to move this community off of socials to something you have more control over (an email list, blog, etc.)?
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