The Best Things in Branding Aren’t Things

By McNeal Maddox

Many brands struggle to capture the market share they think they should, especially in markets where price is perceived as the primary factor driving purchase decisions. Astute marketers recognize that brands are built in the minds of consumers. They also realize that rational, logical appeals can only take you so far in convincing consumers to trade their hard-earned money for whatever they’re selling. Any brand can list its components or its product bundles or its service levels or any of the other hundreds of attributes that make a product what it is. But people don’t want products. People want a helping hand. People want a willing ear. People want a meaningful connection to an organization that has their best interest at heart.

There’s an old saying in sales that “People don’t buy matches. They buy flames.” That fundamental truth is at the heart of any commercial exchange–the ends are always more valuable than the means. It’s a simple truth, but one that surprisingly still isn’t reflected in many sales and marketing teams’ approach to making meaningful connections with the audiences they value the most. Even with decades of marketing research indicating that consumers’ likelihood of purchase increases significantly when they can see the personal value in an exchange (rather than just monetary value), it hasn’t fundamentally changed the way many companies try to attract and retain customers. Consider the chart below from a survey of 3000 buyers of B2B services conducted by CEB. Not only were buyers nearly 48% more willing to purchase brands if they felt they provided personal value to them (personal value meaning a combination of professional, social, emotional, and self-image benefits), they were 60% more likely to pay a higher price for those same brands. Although branding is often (incorrectly) thought of as only relevant for B2C markets, these results show branding can have just as much if not more of a positive influence on B2B audiences.

I’d bet you my next paycheck that on millions of sales calls made today alone, millions of prospects on the other end of the phone will be sold the merits of a bunch of undifferentiated features instead of a reason to believe in the company selling them. It’s likely you don’t sell matches, so substitute any widget or tool or product or service and the same holds true. Creating differentiation means understanding what kind of helping hand you’re uniquely capable of offering people. And that means ensuring people always think of your brand as the solution to a specific need. That’s where branding comes in.

Instead of a laundry list of features and capabilities, a story built on a clear understanding of people’s needs can bundle multiple benefits into an idea with which people can identify. In effect, your brand represents a bundle of “goods”–both tangible and intangible–that people can personally relate to. Branding taps into people’s past experience and shared understanding to add a richer, more meaningful context to purely logical, rational appeals. One of my favorite examples of this is the case of the iPod versus the Zune. If you don’t remember the Zune, it’s not surprising. The Zune had all the features of an iPod and even some that the iPod didn’t: a bigger screen, a built-in FM tuner, and even the ability to share music and photos. But, unlike the iPod, the Zune didn’t tell a simple story about what it could offer that music lovers wanted most: “A thousand songs in your pocket.”

Think about your own marketing for a minute. Have you crafted a brand that can represent a clear, uniquely relevant, and differentiated idea in the minds of the people you’re trying to reach? Are you still selling matches or are you consistently, deliberately and strategically selling flames? If not, it might be time to replace a strategy based on selling more stuff with one based on getting people fired up about the personal value your brand represents in their lives.