Build a brand, not just a product

Imagine that the next ad you see is for brown sugar water (BSW). BSW is advertised as exactly that: sweet, slightly syrupy, carbonated, with a unique and pleasant flavor. It’s generally served cold, mixes well, and is sold at your local grocer or convenience store.

If you’re health conscious, you’re out already. If you’re not, BSW is competing with soda, energy drinks, tea, coffee, beer, wine, and liquor. BSW isn’t especially memorable or cheap, doesn’t improve your life, and competes with any number of similar products. It’s safe to assume that BSW won’t be making waves in the product world anytime soon.

Except that BSW is really Coca-Cola; quite possibly the most recognizable brand in the world, and they earned about $6.786 billion over the last year.

What is the difference in brand vs. product?

A brand is an idea that resonates beyond a simple utterance, or your limited interaction with the subject at hand. Coke isn’t the commercial you just saw with a polar bear: it’s the accumulation of hundreds, if not thousands of experiences over the course of many years. In concert, these experiences give a depth of experience that would be impossible if we took the product (nicely flavored sugar water) at face value.

What does this mean for your product? All of the things you normally associate with marketing your product become more than a bullhorn signalling to the world that you exist, but an extension of the user’s experience with the product itself. This is one of the (many) reasons I despise the rise of growth hacking and all its attendant actions. Even if they effectively communicate the value of the product and drive real users, they rarely serve as a meaningful example of the product experience, and more typically detract from it significantly.

Instead, it’s far more effective to emulate the product experience while making an emotional appeal. My favorite example is one of Google’s first commercials:

They’re not taking you through features, espousing benefits, or making unnecessary and indirect appeals to your sensibilities based on their own (I’m looking at you, brand that retweets for no other reason). They’re connecting with you based on a shared understanding of our journeys with their product.

Consider how insane it is that anyone could have an emotional attachment, or assign human characteristics, to a fucking search engine. It’s an idea that seems at best misguided and at worst delusional, and yet there I was, in 2009 and 2016, finding myself thinking about the fact that the closest emotion I could use to describe my relationship with Google is, in fact, love. This is not a brand that got to that point by accident, but rather with intent, and focus. Google didn’t become GOOGLE by hacking their way onto your phone, they did it by becoming an idea beyond the search engine. But how?

Get personal

Building a brand for a consumer product is not meaningfully strategically different from building your personal brand (and not in the ‘I blog X and Tweet Y’ sense, but in the truer personal sense of how you interact with others). As such, the following are of paramount importance:

  • Be awesome
    This should go without saying, but having an awesome product is necessary for this to work. If you don’t have an awesome product, you’re marketing shit at best, and committing fraud at worst. Until your product is awesome, you don’t have a brand problem, you have a product problem. Nothing I discuss will help you if you don’t sort that out, so go do it. The article will keep.
  • Don’t NOT be awesome
    Seriously, your product needs to be great. I can’t emphasize this enough. Even products we don’t classically associate with being great (looking at you, Budweiser) are great at what they’re trying to accomplish, for the people that want to accomplish that task. Budweiser tastes like shit. But it gets people that don’t want something with better (or more) taste drunk, thereby accomplishing its goal. Budweiser drinkers don’t complain about it (for better or worse).
  • Find your honest voice
    Bullshit is everywhere, but it’s easier to spot all the time. Think about a comedian you love: does it feel like they mean the things they say — like they’re having a conversation? Or do they seem schticky? If you think they’re good, it’s almost certainly the former (see: Chappelle, C.K., Carlin, Pryor, Rock, etc.). If they’re annoying and nobody respects them, it’s probably the latter (too many to count). Your brand isn’t any different: if you want to resonate, cut the bullshit and have an honest dialogue, even if it’s with quippy copy. People will notice.
  • Grow people
    This is hard, and to do it you’re going to need to Be Awesome™. But think about why you love Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, etc. so much. Google finds you whatever you want, whenever you want. It saves you time, money, sanity. If Google was a friend, you would ALWAYS want Google around. Amazon makes you a hero at Birthdays (same day delivery!) and makes movie night a breeze (“Of course I remembered, I just wanted to pick it out with you, honey”). All of these things make people’s lives better, easier, more fulfilled. Your product needs to too.

Give voice to your content

Tactics without strategy is a waste of time. If you take nothing else away from this article, take away the overarching need to have an honest dialogue (dialogue goes two ways, not one) about a great product (not a mediocre one, and certainly not a lousy one).

But you’ll eventually need to do something with this knowledge. Tactics tend to be highly contextual (new versus old product, small versus big budget, global or local value proposition, etc.), and I therefore recommend them with great reticence, but if I can’t write up 5 Great Tips to Fuck Up Your Brand Less, I’m pretty sure this will never get shared, so here we are.

  • Communicate on social media in ways that add value
    By this I mean have a real conversation, with real people, about your product, or more specifically, the problem they use your product to solve. This makes you the brand that is always there for them, not the brand that always breaks.
    (Pro tip: the difference is mostly customer service).
  • Send newsletters that talk about how you’re helping customers achieve
    New features that make life easier, fast uploads, integrations with other products. You can even use this as an excuse to say “You talked, and we listened!”, which is always fun.
  • Make your (marketing) website an extension of your product
    It amazes me how useless most marketing sites are. Do you have resources for customers? Tools? Reference guides? Make their lives better and the rest will follow.
  • Market with content, not messaging
    Podcasts. Blogs (Meta!). Anything that grows your presence in the lives of customers in an additive way. Slogans are nifty for recall, but they’re empty calories. Content that grows my mind, my business, my relationships? Sustenance.
  • Be human
    Especially if you’re the CEO. Go to events, talk to customers, be radically transparent. The cult of the CEO is real, but it’s real because Jobs/Musk/etc got out there and talked to people. In a related story, their products have some of the most devoted followers in the world.

Create a kickass experience

We disassociate the brand from the product for good and healthy reasons, but the reality is that we’re simply missing a noun. The app is what we use, and the brand is what we see, but they always act in concert to form the product, and the sum of them is our experience. Never underestimate how much that experience relies not on what we see and touch, but on what goes on in our heads. The former is king, and without it, the latter is impossible. But when products invade our headspace, and the very idea of them sparks our imaginations, you’ve crossed the Rubicon into hallowed ground.

So build a great brand. It’s worth it.


If you like what you just read, please be sure to hit the green heart and recommend this post, or say hi — leave us a comment below. For more information on rhubarb studios, give us a follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Chris Graham’s story.