With branding, it’s easy to get bogged down in abstract concepts and frameworks. We’re guilty of this just like anyone else. But sometimes, in the midst of all of the conversation, the true value is lost.
Sometimes, to rediscover that value, you need to tell a story. Today, I’m going to tell you three. My hope is that you’ll walk away with a clearer vision of why branding could be valuable for you.
Pace lines and domestiques
One of the amateur hobbies that I’ve pursued over the years is long-distance cycling. There’s nothing like riding down a country road on a Saturday morning. The song the birds are singing, the smell of fresh cut grass, the hum of bicycle tires against the road. It’s perfect. It's magical.
In cycling there’s this thing called a pace line. Maybe you’ve seen it if you’ve turned on the Tour de France. In a pace line, a whole team or group of riders works together as a unit, riding in a straight line with their wheels within inches of each other. The rider at the front of the line breaks the wind while those riding behind have to work less, conserving energy. Every few minutes you switch the leader. It’s all about aerodynamics.
The riders that lead the pace line on professional teams are called domestiques; the french word for servant. There’s a reason. It’s grueling work.
Riding like this can elevate the average speed you’re able to travel as a group... sometimes by as much as 5-10 miles per hour even for a mere amateur like me.
There’s a simple rule when it comes to pace lines: you have to get really close to the person in front of you. I mean. I’m talking within 3-6 inches while you're hurtling down the road at 20-30 miles an hour.
And here’s the other thing. All of this depends on coordination. If you ride too fast you’ll clip the tire of the rider in front of you, starting a chain reaction of wipes out everyone however long the pace line is. If you ride too slow and let 2-3 feet get between you and the next rider you’ve broken the pace line and now no longer benefit from the collective strength of the team.
Everything depends on alignment and precision. Alignment in working towards the same shared common goal, and precision in working towards that common goal in the same way.
The same is true at your company. If you would get 10 different answers from 10 different employees to the question “Who are we and what makes us unique?” You have an alignment problem.
A brand brings alignment around that unique thing that makes your company special so that you’re all riding in the same direction, at the same speed. You’ll get further together.
But alignment isn’t the only thing a brand gives you.
Thunderstorms, Spain, and a dress designer
Years ago, my wife and I spent an amazing final night in San Sebastian, Spain. Like normal, I had a little too much to drink. When we got back to our room, neither of us slept.
I spent my evening restlessly rolling around, probably snoring, and then waking up at 4am with that dry mouth I get when the alcohol starts wearing off, feeling like I have never had a drink of water in my life.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t noticed the thunderous storm crashing all around us. Making the walls of our hotel room flash. My wife had. That’s why she didn’t sleep.
In the morning we had to catch a train. Both of us, bleary-eyed, climbed aboard. If you’ve ever been on a train in Spain, you know most of them aren’t as efficient as the ones in France. We were on the slow train — 5 hours to Barcelona.
At least in Barcelona we weren’t going to stay at a hotel. When we got to our apartment on Ramblas de Catalunya we rang the doorbell and were met at the door by our smiling host, Rod. He greeted us with a hug and invited us in.
Then he walked us upstairs to the studio apartment we’d be staying in. It was right next to his workshop where he designed dresses. He showed us the bed, the bathroom, the kitchen and most essentially the Nespresso machine. Before he ducked out to get back to work, he told us to let him know we needed anything.
As we sat down on the couch, exhausted, we exhaled. It felt like we were home. But we weren’t in our home.
We were in an Airbnb.
This experience is the essence of what a great brand does. What your company could do. It challenges all of your preconceived notions about a category. No longer do I have to go to a stuffy, one-size fits all hotel — or pay exorbitant amounts to get a “unique” hotel experience. I can get a room that feels like me. Thanks, Airbnb.
Traveling will never be the same because they redefined their category.
The best way to safeguard your company’s future is to do the same.
So, a brand brings alignment and it allows you to redefine the rules of the game. But it does something else important as well.
A little grocery store in Ballard that sells bleach
I love grocery shopping.
I usually shop at a little local grocery store in Seattle called Ballard Market. I love shopping there because it doesn’t feel like a grocery store. Even as the city has grown up around it, it continues to feel like the small-town grocer that I can trust— maybe it’s the last bit of the 10,000 person small town I grew up in, just hanging on in me.
One of the things that I love about Ballard Market is that they have each of the department leads at their store make decisions about what to stock. This means that although you’re going to be able to get most of the normal things, and get them organic like I prefer, there’s always going to be a couple things that are different and interesting as well.
The other thing that I love is their produce section. It’s a sight to behold. I can go into any other store, Whole Foods, Kroger, doesn’t matter. Their selection will pale in comparison. I mean, damn, Ballard Market’s produce section is something.
For someone like me who looks forward to his Saturday grocery shopping, it’s a bit of heaven... until I walk into the cleaning supplies aisle to get some bleach.
This aisle paralyzes me. I stare at all the short and stubby bottles with the handle on their neck. I ponder for a second and then I grab a bottle of Clorox because it feels familiar... even though it was twice as much... or four times what they’re charging down the street, if you listen to the critics of Ballard Market’s pricing.
Do you see what happened there? I willfully grabbed the product that was twice as much despite the fact that all chlorine bleaches are essentially the same — a water solution of sodium hypochlorite, either 5.25% for regular strength or 6% sodium hypochlorite for extra strength.
Bleach is an object lesson in how branding allows you to charge a premium. It frees you from the tyranny of price competition.
I willfully pay double the cost for my groceries for the experience I’m seeking, regardless of the fact that 90% of those groceries could be bought at any other store (minus the produce, I’m still holding out on the fact that the produce is objectively better).
And then there’s the matter of the bleach. In that already pricey store, when I get to the cleaning aisle I willfully pay a price premium to get brand name Clorox bleach even though I know it is objectively the same as any other brand. I mean I really know it, I’m telling you about it right now, I’ve done the research.
Branding is powerful. These companies can charge a price premium because of their brand, not their product. As a result, they’ve safeguarded their future.
What is differentiation worth to you?
What would you give to be able to have alignment? To redefine the rules of engagement for your business category, one that none of your competitors could even touch? To be able to charge a premium for your services whether you were selling the exact same thing to someone as everyone else on the market?
I think the answer is a lot. Most of us would. This sounds like the stability that so many of us seek for our business but so rarely achieve. It sounds like a future that’s secure, but also interesting and unique.
So, the next obvious question is this. What will it cost me to achieve this? And, I’m not talking about dollars and cents here. I’m talking about the efforts and energy that will be spent on first understanding what makes you unique, and then reengineering that uniqueness back into every part of your company.
I won’t lie. It’s going to be hard work. But that hard work is going to be worth it, because in the end you will know that you’ve safeguarded your company for the future.