Today’s newsletter is a shortened and focused version of last week’s rather lengthy article.
If you didn’t get a chance to read it, or you just want a version that’s stripped down to the major points, this one’s for you!
“I want to build a brand based on my values.”
I hear that from clients and friends more and more frequently these days.
These folks know that by setting their business apart from the competition by focusing on what they and their best customers care about most, they’ll be able to create and capture additional value from their work.
So here are the two options to choose from:
Option 1, which is by far the most popular, is to invest lots of money or energy into promoting your brand values.
You tell people what your values are, why they matter to you, and why your customers should care.
Based on the good feelings these efforts try to create, some number of people (if you’re spending enough money or time) will gravitate toward your brand when they’re selecting a product or service in your category.
And due to the universal human truth that what is most desirable to me is that which is most desired by others, sales will go up during your advertising campaign or social media push because your product or service appears popular and credible.
Unfortunately, you’re also likely to get stuck in a repeating cycle of running brand ads or social campaigns, seeing some slight but delayed sales lift, watching the sales drop off once the campaign ends, and then feeling like you have to keep it up forever.
Because, under this approach, you basically do.
Once you stop actively advertising your brand values (or even just slow down), people will start gravitating toward the other products or services they see other people buying more often. The brands that have bigger advertising budgets, more staff, or sustainable word-of-mouth.
Which leads me to Option 2: Differentiation, which creates that word-of-mouth.
Instead of investing massive cash or energy upfront to burn your values and logo into the mind of the consumer, you slowly but surely build a reputation the same way people have been doing it for themselves, since forever:
You make promises based on your values, and then you keep them by making tradeoffs.
Instead of just talking about your values, you demonstrate to your ideal customers the specific decisions and tradeoffs that those values have caused you to make.
And, because your ideal customers share your values, or at least appreciate those tradeoffs, you'll be able to do less of what they don't care about (and don't want to pay for), and more of what they do care about (and would pay anything for).
And it’s by making these tradeoffs—which your competition is either unable or unwilling to do—that you’ll create a space between your expenses and your prices (profit), and the cost to your client and the benefit they receive (value).
Most importantly, though, your customers and clients will have the language with which to express your advantages to their friends, colleagues, or peers.
They don’t have to say wishy-washy things like, “They were great to work with.” Instead, they can say things like, “They didn’t waste my time on useless reports, they walked me through how to analyze the data myself so that my skills can grow alongside my business.”
Note the values: They don’t want to waste their clients’ time, and they want their clients to grow from the experience of working together.
And note the tradeoffs: They don’t provide much documentation or reporting, which allows them the time and energy to focus on their clients’ specific priorities and needs.
By demonstrating your values in terms of tradeoffs, your customers will also be able to know exactly who else would appreciate those tradeoffs, and that person will be able to eloquently refer you to others, too.
Compounding and compounding, on and on.
While this strategy requires little upfront capital, it does require patience. And it only works if you are not a commodity.
It only works if there are real and meaningful differences in how you make or deliver what it is you sell.
That’s why service businesses tend to conglomerate. The only surefire way for an undifferentiated service business (like an insurance company, full-service advertising agency, or management consultancy) to increase their fees relative to costs is by taking advantage of scale economies created by sharing resources, and/or by reducing the bargaining power of buyers by merging with or buying out the competition.
They’ll often also invest exorbitant amounts of time and energy responding to RFPs—begging their prospective customers to see them as the shiniest apple in the apples-to-apples commodity comparison.
But once they stop advertising, cutting costs, and responding to every RFP that comes their way, they’ll simply wink out of existence.
Because they had no basis upon which to build word-of-mouth.
Their clients or customers had no reason to recommend them beyond personal preference, no language to use that expressed the additional value created by making specific tradeoffs.
So if you want to build a brand that can spread via word-of-mouth, and not just advertising and RFPs, here’s what to do:
- Define an audience group you’re uniquely able to serve based on your overlapping values
- Make decisions and tradeoffs in your business to best serve those ideal customers
- Demonstrate how those decisions and tradeoffs have influenced your product or service offering
- Promote the additional value (in terms of cost savings, guarantees, reliability, satisfaction, aesthetic appeal, etc.) these specific tradeoffs create for your ideal customers
That’s how you build a brand, earn a reputation, and create word-of-mouth.
Let’s say you run a service business and you’ve earned yourself a reputation for being “easy to work with” or “professional” or “trustworthy.”
The problem is, as you’ve likely discovered by now, you really can’t build a brand based on vague statements like these, because there’s no obvious alternative, no clear tradeoffs—nobody wants to select a service provider that’s difficult to work with, unprofessional, or untrustworthy (unless their selection criteria is extremely atypical).
Which means your customers don’t currently know why you’re so great to work with, they only know how it feels to work with you.
So when they recommend you based on being “easy” or “professional” or “trustworthy,” it just sounds like personal preference to the person they’re speaking to. It doesn’t tell that person the tradeoffs you’ve made to be so easy, or the decisions you’ve made to appear so professional.
You have to give them that language.
Here’s an example: If one of the ways you’re easy to work with is that you don’t have to constantly create change orders or adjust the project scope, you can explain why as part of your onboarding or business development process.
You can say, “It’s my policy to make sure everything is fully scoped out during the discovery process, so there are no surprise costs or delays at the end. This does mean that there’s an upfront cost to working with me, but that pays for certainty and confidence that you’ll get a great product that meets your specific needs.”
Your tradeoffs are clear, obvious, and distinctly preferable to certain type of buyer—the ones who value quality over “getting a deal.” In fact, you immediately turn off deal-hunters, who would have just wasted your time and energy anyway.
But, even better, by making your tradeoffs explicit rather than merely apparent during your process, your customers gain the language they need to properly refer you to others who might value those tradeoffs, too.
Let’s take another example: If your clients say that you’re uncommonly “professional,” give them the language for why that is.
Perhaps you can say, “One of my core principles is that I never miss deadlines, so that’s why it’s so important to me that my clients commit to specific dates for delivery of their feedback. I can’t guarantee an excellent product that’s on time and on budget if I can’t schedule accurately, so if a deadline for feedback gets missed, I’ll adjust the final delivery date accordingly.”
Again, your tradeoffs are clear, and your ideal customers love them—they’re willing to hold up their end of the bargain because you’re able to guarantee that you’ll hold up yours.
You’re selecting for your very best clients at the same time you’re marketing your differences and tradeoffs.
This goes, too, for your other marketing efforts, including your advertising. Your ads aren’t about your values in the abstract, they’re about the tradeoffs you’ve made to create extra value for your best customers—and they’re wrapped up, presented in, your values. As creatively as you possibly can.
Your social media posts don’t tell people you have values, they demonstrate those values by showing the real differences in your process or your product. And the real advantages and increases in value your best customers will see because of those differences and those decisions.
The ad doesn’t just say, “We have the best customer service in the industry,” it says, “We don’t use chat-bots, because we have chat-humans. 24/7, every single day, on the phone or online.”
And the people who care about customer service more than anything else will be happy to make whatever tradeoff this level of service requires, including paying more.
And they’ll know exactly what to tell their friends or colleagues when they recommend you.
If you can’t be specific about how your values have created real and meaningful differences in how you work or what you make, in what way are they values at all?
Because you don’t actually build a brand.
You receive it based on what real people think and say about you—not what you say about yourself.
So don’t try to build a brand based on your values.
Do—and then demonstrate—the work to deserve one.